Ireland used to be prone to droughts, researchers find

Recently-discovered weather records dating from the 19th century show that Ireland has been very prone to drought in the past.

It seems hard to believe given the amount of rain we get now but, according to Conor Murphy of the Department of Geography at Maynooth University, the records show the last 40 years have been unusual due to the absence of persistent drought events, which have occurred frequently over the last two centuries.

The academic discussed the recently-uncovered records in an opening keynote address at the ACRE Workshop and Historical Weather and Climate Data Forum at Maynooth University.

The records show that Ireland was subject to persistent multi-season drought episodes in the 1800s, 1820s, 1850s, and 1880s.

Similarly, in the 20th century, drought episodes occurred in the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s.

The team at Maynooth is currently working on a detailed drought catalogue for Ireland stretching back to the mid-1700s to map the spatial extent of droughts and trace their impacts using a range of documentary sources, including newspaper archives.

Researchers at the university, in collaboration with Met Éireann and international partners, have been undertaking to rescue climate data and make use of documentary records to deepen understanding of how the Irish, European, and global climate has varied over the last 160 years and beyond.

Over the last two years, their research has seen the construction of long records for storminess (1871 to date), rainfall (1850 to date), flooding (1871 to date) and now droughts for the island of Ireland.

Commenting on the research, Mr Murphy said that, given that such long drought events have happened with regularity in the past, there is a high likelihood that they will occur again in future and that understanding these events was key for future policy making.

“When it comes to planning around extreme weather conditions, to predict the future you must understand the past.

“Last winter saw significant flooding which caused severe damage to homes and businesses across the country.

“We have recently derived continuous records of storminess and flooding dating back to 1871, and what is very significant is, although we are in a notable flood- rich period, it is not unprecedented since the records began,” he said.

The head of climatology and observations at Met Éireann, Séamus Walsh, said the newly-uncovered documents needed to be made available to all climate researchers.

“Looking at their records, it is clear that these amateur scientists took incredible pride in their work; however, they could not have known just how valuable their data would be to us today.

“You can compare it to a map — to know where you are going you need to know where you are.

“These long records are vital to help place recent extreme events in context, and allow us to track emerging climate change signals.

“Making the data contained in these records available to all climate researchers through digitisation should be considered a matter of urgency and we need additional resources to make this happen.”


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