Dr. Peter Inness from the Meteorology Department of Reading University opened this fascinating talk, the last in our 2021/22 series of indoor meetings, with two images of the same patch of woodland near his Oxfordshire home taken two years apart to the day. In the first, the forest floor was carpeted with bluebells; in the second merely a green carpet with a few unopened bluebell buds visible. This was one of several illustrations he used to show how short term changes in weather can impact the natural world, as he sought to distinguish this variability from longer term trends.
In her recent PhD thesis a student at Reading had used data collected by volunteers across the British Isles (recorded on the Natures Calendar website managed by the Woodland Trust) to show that across the UK the mean first flower date for bluebells was 1st of May in 2013, but 8th April in 2017, fully three weeks earlier.
Dr Inness was able to explain this difference reflected short term climate impacts, rather than long term trends. Data for bluebell first-flowering dates and temperature records for January to April in successive years show that bluebell flowering dates respond to the weather and temperature conditions during March, February and January, as the plant stems emerge and the flower buds form, rather than during the flowering period itself. And, though invertebrates react rather more rapidly than plants, similar analyses for the first appearance of orange tip butterflies and for blue tits nesting reached similar conclusions.
In 2021, by contrast, hawthorn blossom appeared a whole month later than normal, reflecting an abnormally frosty April.
Looking at longer term trends and the impact of climate change, however, Dr Inness referred to the paper published recently by the Royal Society. This used records on 406 plant species, some dating from as far back as the 18th century, to show a marked shift that took place in the 1980s. Plants are now emerging on average a whole month earlier each year than seventy years ago.
He showed projections prepared by the Meteorological office to indicate that by 2050, in every other year we will experience summer temperatures similar to those we experienced in the very hot year of 2018. And, unless significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are achieved globally, these temperatures will be the annual norm by the end of the century. And he also showed projected rainfall maps clearly showing that our winters will be wetter and summers dryer, and warned that individual rainfall events will be 29% stronger. A new UK record for of 316mm rain in a 24 hour period, set as recently as 2009, was surpassed again only six years later in 2015 with a new record of 341mm. All of which suggests that nationally there are considerable tasks and costs ahead to prepare reservoirs and infrastructure to be able to cope.
From a wildlife perspective these climate trends are complex and deeply concerning. Dr Inness gave as examples the likely impact on the relatively shallow root systems of beech trees, less well adapted to cope with summer drought conditions than deeper rooted oaks. And the impact on populations of birds such as swallows whose northerly migrations are triggered by seasonal changes in daylight hours. They may arrive at European destinations too late to feed their young on invertebrates maturing earlier as a result of warmer Spring conditions.
Troubling as these issues are, the talk was hugely valuable and timely, providing us all with deeper insight into the impact weather and climate have on the natural world around us.
by Richard Budden
Photo: Barn owl
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