According to Gov.uk: climate change explained, even if global temperature increases are limited to 2°C or less, there are projected to be significant impacts for the UK. Temperatures over land would be expected to increase by more than the 2°C global average. In a 2°C world in the UK there could be a 30% decrease in river flows during ‘dry’ periods, a five to 20% increase in river flows during ‘wet’ periods, and between 700 and 1,000 more heat related deaths per year in south east England compared to today.
In a 4°C world in the UK impacts become increasingly severe and may not be avoidable through adaptation. People living in coastal communities or alongside rivers would be significantly impacted through sea level rise and more frequent river flooding.
An average year in the UK will cost insurers approximately £800 million due directly to weather related claims. In a year with exceptional events, this can rise to around £10.5 billion. It has been estimated that during the summer 2007 UK flood approximately £5 billion worth of economic damage was caused. A study commissioned by Climate NE in 2009 called ‘The economic implications of Climate Change – A North East England Study’ found that it is seven times more cost effective to finance and deliver adaptation measures than it is to let the economy take the economic costs of climate impacts.
Due to the significant financial implications of extreme weather, it is more important than ever to develop adaptation strategies that will need to be in place to reduce the future impact of severe weather events and a changing climate. Continually reviewing emergency plans to reflect the latest research on the implications of major weather events will be crucial for County Durham’s future development.
In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth report on what will happen to our climate depending on how quickly we can reduce our global carbon footprint. It presented a stark warning that the world is heading to at least 1.5°C of heating even with the most optimistic scenario, which will bring challenges to the people of every continent.
Although written for a global audience, there are important messages for decision makers, business owners, and residents in County Durham on the severity of the problem. The report showed that human influence is warming the planet, and that will have devastating consequences, particularly if it is allowed to go beyond 1.5°C. Changes in rainfall patterns, heat waves, extreme weather events, and changing seas will have far reaching consequences that affect the lives of people all over the world, including here in Durham. Delaying action on climate change will be much more costly in the long term as the costs for adapting to the changing climate rise with the rising temperatures. The main conclusion of the IPCC Report was that it really matters how quickly we respond to this emergency.
Landscape and Food
County Durham landscapes are hugely varied. From coastal landscapes to Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) in upper Teesdale and Weardale, all our landscapes are very vulnerable to changes in the climate. An increase in wildfires across the globe and more recently in 2020 in Ireland show just how vulnerable landscapes are to increases in temperature.
Farming forms a large part of County Durham’s rural activities and increased temperatures, changes to rainfall patterns, and an increased risk of extreme weather events will all negatively affect the production of major food crops.
Overall, we expect that warming will cause more negative effects than positive ones on crop production. This will make a growing gap between food demand and supply worse. Because trade networks are increasingly global, the effects of extreme weather events in one part of the world will affect food supply in another. For example, floods or droughts that damage crops in Eastern Europe or the US can directly affect the cost and availability of food in the UK.
The UK relies on imports of food to feed its population as only 55% of the food we eat here is actually grown here. Climate change is causing a change in the moisture content of soil all over the world. This will make it difficult for crops to be grown in the regions where they currently grow, causing potentially huge problems for food supply to this country. It’s not just about food that we grow here in Durham, but also the production of all of the food that we eat.
Ecology and Biodiversity
Changes in our climate are having or will have consequences on our environment and the species that depend on habitats in County Durham. Species that do not adjust their life cycle events in response to climate change are more likely to experience population declines. On the positive side, the effects of earlier spring and later autumn events might lead to an increase in the number of generations per year of some species (eg butterflies). Indeed, there is recent first evidence of double brooded Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary in Durham.
Some animal species, especially those with more southerly distributions, are colonising north of their historical range This is consistent with recorded increases in temperature. Durham may see new species colonising, especially butterflies, solitary bees, and dragonflies, however some species currently in Durham may leave to move further north. Non-native invasive species will increase as the climate becomes suitable for a greater number of species. There is potential for some established non-native species to increase their distribution and abundance.
Several wintering wildfowl and wader species have declined significantly in their abundance in the UK as many have shifted north-eastwards to new feeding grounds. This might have impacts on wading bird populations on the Durham coast and uplands. Trans-Saharan migrants heading to the UK may face an increasingly severe barrier to their northwards spring migration because of desertification in the Sahel region in Northern Africa. Summer migrants are becoming permanent residents; example, the red admiral butterfly is increasingly overwintering in the UK as winter temperatures rise.
High altitude plant communities of species have adapted to low temperatures and are likely to decline in response to rising temperatures. This could have potential impacts on the “Teesdale assemblage” of rare arctic and alpine flora.
Mammals that rely on hibernation (eg hedgehogs and bats) are reducing their period of hibernation. Warmer winters mean that it is difficult for an animal to supress its metabolic rates resulting in shorter hibernations and worse survival and breeding success rates.
The impacts of climate change at the coast are real and happening now. Most easily seen with the increase in number of cliff falls over the past few years, meaning paths are lost or diverted. Wetter weather increases the likelihood of cliff falls due to increased weight and decreased friction.
Sea level rise has been measured locally at North Shields for a long time. With 200mm risen over the past century with the rate of rise accelerating over the past two decades. This also accelerates the natural erosion of our cliff line and does impact on the ability of any sea defences to perform effectively.
In How is climate change affecting coastal flooding in the UK?, the London School of Economics and Political Science says “Since 1993, global sea level has been monitored by satellites, which show that it is currently rising at an average of 3.3 millimetres per year (according to NASA’s sea level information), an acceleration from the rate of 1.4 millimetres per year, which was the average calculated for the 20th century.”
Our natural world is seeing changes too, our wonderful unique beach banks, whose flowers never fail to inspire, are seeing an increase in grasses that are forcing out the wildflowers. As temperatures increase, we also see changes in our insect and bird populations as their food supply changes.
In the sea we are now seeing bass and ray being caught by shore anglers, something that was a rare event 40 years ago, and as sea temperatures rise cod will move to cooler waters and other species will move in.
The resilience of our coast and our coastal communities to the impacts of climate change is something that we can do something about, ensuring that on land our natural areas are connected and of a size that allows our wildlife a way to move as their preferred conditions change. On the shore and at sea we can now actively restore habitats which may well help protect our coasts and will contribute to locking up carbon. We can also change how we manage our marine areas to ensure that they are healthy and in the best condition we can for our future generations to use and enjoy
In County Durham our Peatscapes, which lie in the upper reaches of Weardale and Teesdale (North Pennines), are exceptionally important in storing carbon. The protection and restoration of peatlands is vital in the transition towards a low-carbon and circular economy. Damaged peatlands contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector. CO2 emissions from drained peatlands are estimated at 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 a year.
In their natural, wet, state, peatlands provide vital ecosystem services. By regulating water flows, they help to minimise the risk of flooding and drought and prevent seawater intrusion. They also preserve important ecological and archaeological information such as pollen records and human artefacts.
The North Pennines AONB’s peatland restoration programme has more information.
Climate change is expected to make some existing health problems worse as temperatures increase. Warmer temperatures could increase the range over which disease-carrying insects are able to survive and thrive.
Vulnerable people will be at risk of increased heat exposure and the number of deaths due to temperature extremes is expected to increase in the future, although in the long term there will likely be fewer health problems related to cold temperatures.
The amount of people at significant risk from flooding is expected to increase in the future and some studies have shown that there is likely to be an increase in disease relating to worsening air pollution.
But climate change doesn’t affect just our physical health it can affect our mental health too directly and indirectly and can include anxiety, stress, and high coping behaviours.
When our way of life is affected such as our homes, living conditions, resource access, economic sources, and our natural environment, it begins to have an impact on how we cope affecting not only the vulnerable but the entire population.