I hate to be pessimistic, but I have a bad feeling about this winter. November saw storms Abigail, Barney and Clodagh arrive in quick succession, each with gales, heavy rain and snow in parts. December brought more of the same. Storm Desmond drenched the country and left devastating floods across Cumbria where there was record rainfall. The torrential rain hit us in West Wales as well, carving a gully down the side of our drive in just a few hours. Already three of our polytunnels have failed in the gales, which split the plastic covers, leaving us without vital protected cropping for the winter months.
These extreme weather events are more and more the norm. It’s becoming warmer, wetter, wilder and weirder these past few winters, just as predicted by the Met Office climate change projections. While the media continues to skirt around discussions of climate change, I know in my bones that is what’s happening. It was refreshing to hear Environment Secretary Liz Truss, acknowledge it as well.
Farmers and the weather have a love hate relationship. What other profession can you think of that succeeds or fails depending on the rain or in our case, the wind? The thing is, I was planning on having my little square of Wales turn into the Costa del Ceredigion with warmer temperatures, a bit more sunshine and new crops like peaches and cherries thriving in our polytunnels. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be happening, and recent signs of climate change are starting to look really bad for the UK and Europe.
The UK climate benefits from the Gulf Stream (specifically the North Atlantic Drift), which makes it temperate and allows for an ample and diverse amount of food to be produced here – without it, our winters would be more like Canada with lots of snow laying for a long time. But the slowing of ocean circulation caused by the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet could really change this. It’s already transporting less warm water to the North Atlantic and the sea between Canada and Britain, south of Greenland is becoming colder. When the North Atlantic Deep Water circulation (as it’s known) ceased circulating some 11,000 years ago because of climate shifts, Britain along with the rest of Northwestern Europe fell into a mini ice age within decades.
2015 is shaping up to be the year in which climate change ‘arrives’ into the currency of our daily lives; we are finally understanding how very real it is. While we’ve been aware of its effects for some time, it’s as if we’ve been looking the other way and pretending not to see what’s happening. But the pace of change has startled us out of our complacency and it feels suddenly more tangible.
There is a confluence of effects that is hard to escape: large parts of the ocean are warmer than they have ever been before; this is melting ice sheets in the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica at a terrific rate, raising sea levels and causing shifts in ocean circulation that significantly impacts marine life, which is moving north to escape the hot seas. A couple of years back a Blue Shark, usually found in tropical waters, turned up in Cardigan Bay, swimming in a few feet of water in New Quay harbour. Then, of course, there’s the weather getting more extreme by the minute
It’s the weather in combination with the warming that will really challenge us in farming. Drought is becoming wide-spread across the world and in places where water is generally abundant, like Sao Paolo. And where the water isn’t disappearing, it’s pouring down in buckets. Farmers always want to be in the space between drought and flood, ever hopeful for ideal weather which gives them sun and rain in equal measure. While that’s rarely the case, extreme weather was also once a rarity, but that’s no longer so. The global warming I’d hoped would transform Ceredigion, is likely to bring more virulent pests and disease with it, adding a world of woes to the farmer’s lot – a plague of slugs like we had in summer 2012, the UK’s second wettest year on record, could be just the half of it.
The rains of 2012 were devastating to the rural economy – the NFU stated that it caused “…a financial black hole on Britain’s farms amounting to a staggering £1.3 billion.” It was a tough year for us as vegetable growers. We could probably survive one or two bad years every ten, but not if the bad years are every two out five. The odds start stacking up against us.
After more days of unending rain, my husband suggests we build an ark. The water running off our fields carries soil and nutrients with it, even with the abundant trees on our land working as wind breaks for the air coming off the wild Irish Sea. The ground is so wet underfoot, just walking on it is damaging. The health of our soils is everything to us and our land is in good heart – it may just be what saves us.
We need to build resilience throughout our farming. While this winter it’s rain we have to contend with, next summer it could well be drought. We never thought we’d worry about water in West Wales, but now it seems anything could happen. Last year we built a pond off a small stream that sides our land – it will catch some of the abundant water falling from the sky as well.
This past weekend at the COP21 talks in Paris, the nations of the world agreed to keep climate change within a 2 degree rise by limiting global GHG emissions, with the aspiration of keeping it to 1.5 degrees. The commitment has been described as both “historic” and “durable” and it is, unquestionably, a big step forward, even if it needs to go further. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace has commented that “The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.” I cross my fingers and hope, please, please, please, let it stick.
Photograph: Debs Eye
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