Ireland must face up to challenging climate change forecast

Our vineyards could be producing vintage wines but we won’t be able to grow a spud. Sean O’Riordan talks to climate change experts about the difficulties facing future generations

Councillor Bill Slattery examines storm damage at the promenade in Lahinch, Co Clare, in December 2014. Picture: Eamon Ward

WE won’t be able to grow potatoes, will have to put a different type of tarmac on our roads, learn to be clever with water use and find a way to stop our railway tracks buckling as the summer landscape begins to resemble southern Spain.

These are just a few of the problems Ireland will face in the next 100 years as global warming takes hold, according to senior climate adaptation scientist Barry O’Dwyer, who, like others, is trying to mitigate against what’s likely to come down the tracks.

He is working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency, government departments, and local authorities to plan for future climate change in a number of areas such as transport, agriculture, and the marine.

The scientist, who is based at MaRei (Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy) in the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork, said summers will become much hotter and drier while autumns and winters will be far wetter.

He said extreme summer heatwaves will cause roads to disintegrate if we don’t start using a tarmac more resistant to heat.

Our hottest summer days are expected to get hotter by up to 2.6 degrees celsius by mid century, “and getting hotter after that”.

Some railway tracks will have to be improved so they don’t buckle in the heat.

“Passenger comfort will also have to looked at, possibly with air-conditioned buses but this would have implications for reducing our emissions so we will need to be innovative in how we plan and design for this,” said Dr O’Dwyer. “We will also have to move transport corridors away from high-risk coastal areas which might be subject to flooding from sea level rise.

“A big part of my work is to get people to realise that our climate is now changing.”

He pointed out that maintaining our roads is likely to become more expensive due to climate change, which can already be seen from the recent winter storms and freezing weather which have caused extensive damage to our road network.

The scene of destruction on Rossbeigh Beach in March 2014, after the worst storm damage in living memory. Coastal erosion is the biggest treat to one of Kerry’s one popular scenic beachs. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

On the agricultural front, Dr O’Dwyer said we’ll be forced to diversify, as we may be unable to be able to grow more traditional crops such as potatoes, which he described “as a likely casualty’’ of global warming.

Irrigation and storing water will become a big issue, as there will be much more rainfall in the autumn and winter and less than normal in the summer.

Other crops may also go because the cost of providing them with water may make them uneconomic, he warned.

Grass growth, he said, will decrease in the summer months in parts of the country, which will have implications for beef and dairy farmers.

Dr O’Dwyer said there would also have to be a balancing act with water distribution, filling the needs of industry, agriculture and human consumption.

He added that warmer summers may make it viable for Ireland to grow its own vineyards, which is already happening in the south of England.

Rainfall in the summer is expected to decrease by up to 20%, although there will be an increased likelihood of so-called ‘monster rain’ events during this season — as happened on June 28, 2012, when several towns, especially in the south of the country, experienced serious flooding.

“Increased temperatures will likely result in a decline in native species, changes in migration patterns and increased pests, non-native and invasive species,” said Dr O’Dwyer.

“Reduced river flows and water quality during summer will have implications for water supply, e.g. reduced water availability during summer will have implications for crop production due the high possibility of having an increased irrigation requirement,” said Dr O’Dwyer.

Cod is likely to disappear from the menu as the water around our coast becomes warmer, introducing some tropical fish, as well as some unwelcome visitors.

These will include jellyfish, which have the potential to seriously damage salmon farms. Another unwelcome visitor will be the mosquito.

Dr O’Dwyer said our ports will have to be increasingly dredged, which will be costly, because of larger volumes of sediment being washed down rivers due to high winter rainfall.

He suggested that government and local authorities may have to be put a wide range of measures in place to prevent damage to businesses and homes, such as growing forests in strategic places to soak up water before it reaches our city and towns and creating floodplains.

“Due to our long history of greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, climate change impacts are already being observed and these impacts will continue and intensify for the foreseeable future, regardless of ongoing efforts to reduce GHG emissions,” he said.

“These impacts will have wide-ranging impacts on Ireland’s eonomy, environment and society.””

Dr O’Dwyer also believes engineers will have to consider designing temporary solutions for extreme weather events, such as riverside demountable flood defences, which they can build upon as the effects of global warming becomes more pronounced.

While his vision is may be for an island 100 years on, there is concern some of these climate changes will come quicker than expected.

Martin Le Tissier recently returned from a major climate change conference in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he met Inuit people who have been affected by melting ice.

He said he was “concerned” by what he’d learned and it may mean that the affects of climate change will arrive at our doorsteps sooner than anticipated.

Dr Le Tissier is project manager with Future Earth Coasts (FEC) — an international body which is endeavouring to provide the science to allow governments make good policy decisions to adapt to climate change. It has an office in the MaRei centre.

‘’I’ve just been to the Arctic Science Summit,” he said. “I met the Inuit and they showed me videos where their traditional hunting grounds for seals and walrus are giving way under their feet.’’

He said traditional knowledge passed down from tribal elders about safe places to hunt and good transport routes were gone out the window as the ice has thinned by up to a third in the past 25 years.

‘’Now one in every 12 Inuit has reported falling through the ice because it’s become so thin.’’

In an effort to help them adapt an Irish-born scientist Trevor Bell and Don Forbes, from Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada, who are collaborating with MaRei, have developed technology which allows the Inuit to measure the thickness of the ice. The equipment is carried on sleds.

“We’re trying to help them adapt to stay safe,” said Dr Le Tissier.

He has personal experience of the consequences of flooding that may be linked to climate change. In 2008 while living in Morpeth, Northumberland, his house was flooded and his prized MG car destroyed.

He said it’s worth the government considering providing grants for flood gates and adapting houses to cope with climate change, but in some places that can only be an interim measure.

“It’s about creating a bit of breathing space,” he said while government, local authorities, and scientists look at ways to mitigate flooding caused by rising sea levels, storms and increased rainfall.

According to Tom McDermott of the school of Economics and Environmental Research Institute, MaRei’s governing body, climate change is likely to exacerbate the risk of flooding through a combination of sea level rise and more extreme weather events.

“While economic development generally means more resources are available to cope with extreme weather events, large-scale urban flooding events in the past do not appear to have resulted in much adaptation, in the sense of relocating away from the most risky locations,” said Dr McDermott.

“This resistance to change, combined with development trends that are increasing exposure, could result in the costs of future flooding being much larger than anticipated.”

Coastal communities are already suffering from storm damage and erosion.

Rory Scarrott, a researcher from the MaRei Centre working with the European Space Agency, said there will be more storms, more wind and larger waves smashing into the coast, which will piggyback on top of higher sea levels and early warning system need to be put in place for coastal communities.

“We can adapt [defences] with rivers but when it comes to coasts we can’t change rising sea levels,” said Mr Scarrott. “The Thames Barrier in London cost a fortune to build, and already options including a new larger barrier are being considered.”

Industry and businesses in urban coastal communities may have to start adapting to rising sea levels and increased risk of flooding and storm-based water damage. He said simple things businesses in city centres could do was to copy the Venice model by placing electrical sockets higher up walls and installing tile floors which were easy to clean.

“In at-risk areas, build your business to flood, don’t wait until it has flooded,” said Mr Scarrott.

“All coastal infrastructure needs to be built with sea level rise and more frequent and extreme weather factored into their design. We need to adapt now.”

Warning signs at Ballyheigue, Co Kerry. Picture: Robert Devoy

A sea change in ocean feeding habits

One of the most beautiful diving seabirds on the planet might have changed its feeding habits off the coast of Ireland thanks to ‘a free meal offer’ provided by trawlers, while climate change could explain why a rare Arctic whale species has been recorded in our waters in the last few months.

Researchers in the MaRei (Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy), in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, and the School of Biological Earth and Environmental Science, University College Cork, made the discoveries as they surveyed large, offshore areas, under a government-led fact finding mission called the ObServe Programme.

The project surveys and maps areas of wildlife importance and provides high-quality data that is essential for conservation and sustainable offshore development.

The research was conducted by Mark Jessopp — a marine ecology researcher who is part of a team working on the ObServe Aerial project (it is funded by the Department of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources, in partnership with the National Parks & Wildlife Service).

He and his team fly 300km off the coast to record marine mammals, seabirds, and other sea life, in what has become the largest offshore aerial survey in the history of the State, and they have made some interesting discoveries.

One notable observation was that gannets were largely seen over the Continental Shelf waters in winter, perhaps because they have cottoned onto the activities of particular fishing boats.

Dr Jessop said they had previously tracked the distinctive, yellow-beaked diving birds using GPS tags, and found they were able to distinguish between different types of fishing boats and were now following trawlers that they knew would later discard certain species of fish from their nets.

Their distribution in winter, as recorded so far by the ObServe Aerial project, seems to be consistent with fishing activity, suggesting that they might have changed behaviour.

“It was quite surprising, actually. They’re cute enough to follow the trawlers and pick up the discards. It’s a free meal, really, and wouldn’t anybody take one,” he said.

But while gannets are staying local, others not normally seen in our waters are the new tourists.

“During the winter surveys, we saw a pod of three beluga whales about 200km off the south-west coast” from Castletownbere, Co Cork, he said. Belugas, also known as white whales, are an Arctic species and to spot a group of three individuals this far south is really unusual.

“Interestingly, a single beluga was also seen off the Antrim coast, in Northern Ireland, last year, and another pair of these rare animals was seen off the coast of Northumberland, in the UK,” said Dr Jessop.

“These significant sightings could possibly be the result of climate change altering conditions in the Arctic, or causing unstable weather patterns in the Atlantic.”

The ObServe Aerial survey project is still ongoing, with a second round of summer and winter offshore surveys to come, and it is expected that experts will complete their analysis of the survey data for the government departments by the spring of 2018.

Their observations will complement a related ObServe project, which is being carried out in the same time frame by Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

This ObServe Acoustic project is gathering detailed information on the presence and distribution of whales and dolphins, using specialised sound-recording devices placed near the ocean floor and towed behind survey vessels.

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