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“Fears of British Super-Drought After Record Low Rainfall in Winter,” UK Guardian Reports

By Joe Romm on February 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm

"“Fears of British Super-Drought After Record Low Rainfall in Winter,” UK Guardian Reports"

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Heat and aridity together make for increasingly brutal global-warming-type droughts

Drought risk graphic

Some brutal droughts are raging around the world.  The one in Texas has, naturally, been receiving most of the attention in this country (see Warming-Enhanced Texas Drought Is Once in “500 or 1,000 Years … Basically Off the Charts,” Says State Climatologist).  Later in the week I’ll blog about the ones hitting Mexico and South America.

But Britain is clearly also being hit by one for the record books, as the UK Guardian reports:

Underground water supplies are being used to keep rivers flowing in the seasons when they are supposed to be replenished

… The impending crisis – which could have widespread consequences for farmers, food production, tourism, industry and domestic life – has been building for the past 18 months. Reservoirs were already low this time last year. Then came 2011, the driest year in England and Wales for 90 years.

In addition, we are now experiencing the driest winter on record, though this could change over the next few weeks, meteorologists have said. The crucial point is that boreholes and reservoirs are now at “notably low” or “exceptionally low” levels. At the RSPB reserve at Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, springs have dried up and many of the birds, including populations of bearded tits, marsh harriers and reed warblers, are now struggling to find food. Fresh water plants and animals such as water voles are also suffering. “This is a very worrying situation to have at this time of year,” said Grahame Madge, an RSPB official. “This is an incredibly important wildlife site that we cannot afford to have damaged. We are going to have to look very carefully at how we manage water supplies there in coming years.”

A second article warns, “Half of UK households ‘could face water restrictions by April’.”

A key point is that warm weather droughts are much worse than cold weather droughts. Thanks to manmade global warming, future droughts will be fundamentally different from all previous droughts humanity has experienced because they will be very hot weather droughts, as I have written (see Must-have PPT: The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather).

The Guardian piece makes a similar point:

Whether these problems trigger a full drought in England this summer depends not just on rainfall but summer temperatures. Britain’s worst years for rainfall included 1921, 1933, and 1964, but these were not the worst years for drought. Summers then were relatively cool, and that made up for the lack of water in boreholes and reservoirs.

It was only when heatwaves began to take place, in years when water levels were only fairly low, that there were significant shortages. This occurred in 1911, 1955, and 1976.

In the case of 1976, the effects were devastating. The temperature reached 27C (80F) every day between 22 June and 16 July, and often climbed well above 32C (90F). Crucially, the previous summer and autumn had been very dry, while the winter of 1975-76 was also exceptionally dry, along with the spring of 1976.

Heath and forest fires broke out across southern England at the peak of the drought in August; 50,000 trees were destroyed at Hurn Forest in Dorset; and an estimated £500m of crops were lost across the country. Food prices rose by 12%. Many rivers ran dry.

There have been numerous studies that make clear warm weather droughts are worse.  I discuss one from the University of Arizona here:  “U.S. southwest could see a 60-year drought like that of 12th century — only hotter — this century.”  The study’s news release explains:

Droughts that are accompanied by warm temperatures have more severe impacts on ecosystems, said Meko, an associate research professor in the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

That should be obvious, though as I will point out in a forthcoming piece on the Texas drought, if you are in denial about global warming, it will be very hard to plan for what is to come.

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11 Responses to “Fears of British Super-Drought After Record Low Rainfall in Winter,” UK Guardian Reports

  1. Leif says:

    The R-love-ution will not be televised. It happens in our hearts first and bit by bit infects those around until all become carriers to nourish and heal one very sick patient, Earth’s life support systems… It gets tedious, but so does walking behind a plow horse all day. Much more fun to build “green”… Work for ALL, not the “Man”!

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Flashback

    May 2011 in Germany:

    Germany has registered the sunniest and driest spring since records began in 1893, the German Weather Service (DWD) said Monday. http://www.thelocal.de/society/20110530-35351.html

    And France

    French environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who set up a high-level group this month to assess the damage from the driest spring on record.

    And

    UN warned that rising food prices risked riots in developing countries. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/31/europe-dry-spring-power-blackouts

  3. Rereading says:

    “Underground water supplies are being used to keep rivers flowing in the seasons when they are supposed to be replenished”

    Is this to supply downstream users? How much does it translate to pumping the aquifer into the ocean?

  4. Peter says:

    Southern England is seeing a preview of the future. After 2050 the climate of London will begin to resemble the present day Costa Del Sol in Spain. By 2090 that of present day Casablanca. The ‘New Riviera’ in Europe will be Southampton and south southern Scandinavia.

    That they are planting olive trees in southern England now, and there is an expanding wine industry is no surprise.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Alas, it doesn’t stop at Casablanca. Next stop Baghdad on a balmy summer’s day, then..

  5. Wet cooling of steam at thermal power plants (coal, nuclear) is the largest consumptive use of fresh water. With all of that precious fresh water being wasted to the atmosphere, maybe this crisis will focus attention on the water-energy nexus and upgrading the antiquated and wasteful cooling technology for baseload generation. As chemical CO2 capture will double the water consumption of coal plants, we can hope that DOE will stop wasting money on it.

    • Raul M. says:

      DOE sees some energy manufacturers adamant in using fossil fuels to make energy and sees the pollution as well as many others who see the pollution of the industry. Many have thought of ways to clean up the mess once emitted. Some think of ways to clean up the mess during the energy production process.
      Others think that the energy production may be done without the massive water use at all, without the rampant pollution for all.
      Maybe biochar production could return much of the pollution back into the ground where it should be out of the way.
      Biochar does use water though, as when the coals are drenched.

  6. NJP1 says:

    Another article that sets out a clear warning for our future, but fails to grasp the problem in its entirety.
    Quoting previous years, or previous centuries as a reference to out own time without mentioning the difference in population, is pointless. Water use habits in the 1950s were totally different than today, when showering/bathing daily or several times a day is looked on as normal.
    No mention of population (again) , cross=relating the drought to south west America in the 12th century when maybe 20,000 people lived there is an understated nonsense. There’s now perhaps 40 million living there, all reliant on the same water supply, but cheating death for a few years by pumping water. Something the native Americans couldn’t do

    • prokaryotes says:

      This article is about “Drought” not per capita usage and assumed efficiency estimates.

      Water usage in the past might be less, but this is irrelevant when looking at precipitation patterns, climax behavior, which affects crop yields.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Quite right. Even as all the ecological life-support systems for our species are collapsing or groaning under the strain, the population continues to rise, and even more insanely, so does consumption, in fact at a higher rate. We’ll all be rooned, and before too long.