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Extreme Surrey weather and climate change: raining cats and crabs?

PUBLISHED: 12:54 13 February 2014 | UPDATED: 12:54 13 February 2014

Extreme Surrey weather and climate change

Extreme Surrey weather and climate change

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There seems little doubt that our climate is getting warmer, but what does the future hold for the weather patterns here in Surrey? And what will this mean for our gardens, our seasons and even our local tourist industry? JIM KEOGHAN investigates

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2010

***

WHATEVER your views on climate change, and the reasons behind it, one thing is certain: the country has been experiencing some pretty extreme weather of late. Indeed, the first six months of 2010 marked the driest start to the year since 1929.

But what about here in Surrey? What sort of localised weather patterns do we have in our county and, if our climate is changing, what could this mean for us?

Well, from storms to flooding to soaring temperatures, it’s fair to say that extreme weather is not uncommon in the county’s history. In fact, Mark Davison, co-author of The Surrey Weather Book, says we have experienced some astonishing meteorological events in the past.

“For example, there were the floods of September 1968, when floodwaters rose so high that one girl in Guildford town centre had to swim to the shops for food from a top floor window,” recalls Mark.

“The county has also had its share of bizarre events, too. A great example of this occurred during the July of 1829 when a violent thunderstorm broke over the workhouse in Redhill, during which there was a report that a shower of crabs fell from the sky. Violent winds around the storm must have whipped up the creatures from a far-flung destination and carried them aloft until they were deposited in Redhill.

“My favourite personal experience of extreme weather, though, was the extremely cold and snowy winter of 1962-63 when I was just a small child.”

Raining cats and crabs

The possibility of extreme or unusual weather is a fact of life (although a crab shower is not something most of us will ever have to endure). But the difference with recent weather patterns, in comparison to those from the past, is that unusual weather events are now happening with increased regularity.

In the past decade alone, the South East as a whole has endured record breaking floods in 2000, the second hottest summer on record in 2006 and a succession of unusually warm winters. As a county, we have even contributed to the record books, when a temperature of 36.5 C (97.7F) was recorded at Wisley on July 19, 2006; the highest ever recorded UK temperature in July.

“Records are being broken at quite a brisk rate and, alongside them, we are seeing other weather events that whilst not record-breaking are still more significant than we have seen for some time,” says local weatherman and co-author of The Surrey Weather Book, Ian Currie. “For example, since 1990, we’ve had the warmest year on record, the highest ever recorded temperature, the warmest July, the second warmest winter; the list goes on.”

All of which raises the question why? Well, whilst not everyone will agree, many people do believe it is because of man-made climate change which via the warming of the planet is arguably altering the way in which our weather behaves. Thinking back to the recent snowfalls that brought much of Surrey to a standstill, it might be difficult to believe that our climate is warming up at all. And yet it’s telling that eight of the ten warmest years on record have taken place in the past 20 years.

Of course, climate change in its literal definition has always been with us. Physical events such as solar flares, changing oceanic circulation and volcanic eruptions have long impacted on our weather.

But the difference with recent climate change is the scale of temperature rise involved. Temperatures have been rising steadily since the late 1970s and, according to the Met Office, annual mean temperatures are likely to rise by more than 2C by the 2050s. An increase such as this could not fail to have a significant impact on our climate.

Surrey weather trends

“The weather can be so uncertain that it’s always difficult to predict exactly what will happen,” continues Ian Currie. “But if you look at some of the local trends here in the county that we have already started to see, then you can get an idea of the effect that a significant temperature rise would have.

“Over the last 20 years, we have begun to see spring starting earlier and autumn becoming warmer. During the summer, we’ve been having very hot and dry periods and in the winter a warmer climate has started to appear.

“In the future, if the temperature rise continues, you can reasonably assume that trends we have already started to see will continue to the point where our expectation of what the seasons should be like will have changed.”

So, ultimately, what will the Surrey climate be like in the future?

One inexact but interesting way to illustrate this is to look at a part of the world that today enjoys a similar climate to the one that Surrey is predicted to have in around 50 years time. Some experts have used the south-west of France, specifically the area around Bordeaux, as an approximation of what counties in the south east of England could be like in the future.

If this turned out to be the case, not only could Surrey become a leading tourist destination in the south, it could also boast its own ‘Champagne’ region. The chalky soils in certain parts of the county, specifically those of the Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking, where they already produce a very successful sparkling wine, are almost identical to those of the Champagne area of France.

But before you crack open the bubbly remember that this is only a rough estimate and if this type of climate was applied to Surrey it would come with plenty of unwelcome downsides, too.

The most serious of these is drought. It is predicted by the UK Climate Impacts Programme that in the future it will be more common for Surrey to have warmer and drier summers, like the one we’ve just experienced.

The resulting lower levels of rainfall and higher levels of evaporation combined with our population density would make water shortages much more common. This might reach the point by 2080 where once in a century droughts could start happening once a decade instead.

In addition, Ian Currie points out that there are also effects that people might not immediately associate with warmer temperatures.

“The impact of rainfall is an example of this,” he says. “As average temperatures increase, rainfall can become more erratic. Remarkable rainfall, the kind of intense, sudden and heavy downpours that can cause flooding, would start to be a more common feature of the county’s weather.

“Equally, higher annual mean temperatures could also increase the incidence of storms and stronger winds during the autumn and winter.”

And that’s the problem with climate change: for every potential positive there is a negative. So whilst some people might welcome long, warm summers, there are those, such as the residents of Chertsey, who continue to suffer from the problems of flooding and will be uneasy about erratic and heavy rainfall.

In the right vane

One group of local residents who are intrigued by these changes are the county’s amateur meteorologists, such as Adrian Gunn who runs the Farnham Weather Station.

“Over the last few years, there has been a worldwide proliferation of personal weather stations such as mine, and there are now several across Surrey,” he says.

“My station, which measures all aspects of the local weather here in Farnham, has been running for over two years. I’ve had over 30,000 hits on the website from all over the world and am currently getting around 45 unique visitors per day.

“I think it shows that people are becoming more and more interested in the weather and that could be because the weather is itself starting to become less predictable. I think that our weather in the coming years is going to be very interesting, to say the least.”

***

Find out more

• The Surrey Weather Book by Mark Davison and Ian Currie is available from good local bookshops at £12.95.

• To find out more about the weather in this area, or to book Ian Currie to do a talk, visit www.frostedearth.com, where you can also find details of his weather magazine.

• For more information about climate change in the South East, visit the website of the UK Climate Impacts Programme at www.ukcip.org.uk

• For details about Farnham Weather Station, visit www.farnhamweather.co.uk

***

HAVE YOUR SAY!

What do you think about the weather in Surrey? Is change just part of the natural cycle of things? And how about global warming? A threat to mankind or a load of hot air. Let us know what you think by e-mailing feedback@surreylife.co.uk or joining us on Facebook and Twitter

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