THE BLOG

How We Really Feel About Climate Change

03/07/2014 14:11 BST | Updated 02/09/2014 10:59 BST

Here in the UK we do like to moan about the weather. We especially like to moan if it exposes flaws in preparing for said weather, such as a dusting of snow crippling London's transport networks, or inadequate clean-up operations afterwards, as experienced in last winter's near-biblical floods.

And we really get cross if the bad weather could have been avoided in the first place.

Hold on, could last winter's floods have been avoided? That's a tricky one. The answer is possibly, but only if we'd been a lot greener for the past couple of centuries, not pumped nasty things into the atmosphere, hadn't built on flood plains and also had better flood defences in place.

Also from the Weather Channel: When the UK flooded

Enough of the 'could'a, would'a, should'a'. We all know the result of our wettest winter in nearly 250 years. But how did the flooding crisis affect our views of climate change and how well do we think the government handled it?

Weather Channel research

A recent Weather Channel UK survey of over 1000 people has revealed some stark truths. Over 70 per cent said the government's response to the floods was too slow and reactive to public opinion.

It certainly looks that way when you compare flood defence spending before and after. When the current coalition government took power in 2010 flood protection spending was cut by a quarter.

Yet after the floods in February 2014, an extra £100 million was pledged to flood defence.

Extra funding is all well and good but it's worth pointing out that our weather last winter was exceptional. Between December 2013 and February 2014 at least 12 major winter storms affected the UK, bringing damaging strong winds and heavy, persistent rain that led to widespread flooding.

The UK overall recorded 161 per cent of its normal winter rainfall, but some parts of the country had well over twice their average winter rainfall - 238 per cent for southeast and central south of England.

The main reason for the mild and wet winter weather was that we were stuck in a westerly pattern where mild and moist air comes in off the Atlantic, along with unsettled and at times stormy conditions.

That's all thanks to the jet stream - a fast-moving ribbon of air high in our atmosphere that steers areas of low pressure. Last winter it was especially strong and stubborn, and in just the right place to send storm after storm our way.

Meteorological mayhem

Is this a normal blip in jet stream behaviour or are bigger forces at work? Let's take a look at the guilty parties. I've mentioned our jet stream which was stronger and stuck in just the wrong place across the North Atlantic.

That strength was linked to exceptional wind patterns in the stratosphere due to an unusually strong westerly phase of the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation, another band of fast-moving winds similar to our jet stream but sitting about 15 miles up over the equator, which in turn drove a very deep polar vortex and strong polar night jet.

It turned out our wet weather could be tied in with the freezing cold winter experienced by Canada and the USA, and both those events were linked to perturbations in the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean and North America.

In turn, the changes in the Pacific jet stream were due to a persistent pattern of enhanced rainfall over Indonesia and the tropical West Pacific, which was associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region.

Thanks to us

So was it just a fluke of nature, all these natural meteorological variations coming together in just the right way to soak the UK? Unfortunately not.

It's time to talk climate change. We know it has definitely played its part, but the tricky thing is proving it, especially given the highly variable nature of our weather and climate.

It's generally accepted that a warmer Earth will lead to changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level and impact on plants, wildlife and us. In other words, global warming leads to climate change.

As for global warming, while the Earth has warmed and cooled over the millennia its most recent rise in temperature is due to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And that's all thanks to us.

Warmer stormier world

Recent studies suggested that global warming would lead to an increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms that take a more southerly track, typical of this winter's extreme weather.

Indeed, looking back over the last century, the number and frequency of storms that hit the UK has increased.

There is also an increasing body of evidence that shows that heavy rainfall rates are becoming more intense over the UK, and that is consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming world - warmer air carries more moisture and therefore produces heavier rainfall.

Time to change

The Weather Channel UK's survey also revealed that two-thirds of us believe the government does not give enough importance to environmental matters, and over half don't think the government does enough to combat and raise awareness of climate change.

Let's hope that changes. In England, more than 5 million properties, nearly 1 in 6, are at risk of flooding. More than 200 homes are at risk of complete loss to coastal erosion in the next 20 years.

And our current climate predictions of rising sea levels and increasingly severe and frequent rainfalls means the risk of floods will increase.

Many of us have changed our political views after such a dreadful winter, with 37 per cent of respondents claiming they will be more likely to think about environmental issues when voting in future.

Before the next election it would be wise for all the parties to get their green policies in place and address how to respond to extreme weather.