It is now overwhelmingly clear that this year’s heatwaves, bushfires, cyclones, and floods around the world, are closely linked to ‘anthropogenic’ human activity. But as cash-strapped governments struggle to cut carbon emissions, there are crucial steps to be taken in our own local bailiwicks.
As spring and summer of 2023 have shown, the world is getting hotter. Yes, there will be brief cooler periods like the UK’s wet and miserable August. But overall we know that warming is happening faster than predicted even if short-term fluctuations make precise planning more difficult.
I would like to look briefly at how we can live and adapt to two major threats in the UK. The first is frequent, violent wet weather – and how this might influence our property-buying decisions. The second is heat.
Everyone affected as records tumble
What we do know for sure is that while southern Europe, along with the south-western US, north-western Canada, and Siberia, endured record high temperatures and enormous bushfires, China, Pakistan, parts of Asia, northern Europe, and even Sudan, experienced heavy flooding.
Unrelenting high pressure settled over the Mediterranean. With the greenhouse effect added, tinder dry conditions hit southern Europe. Warmer weather actually affected the world’s seven continents (https://www.carbonbrief.org/media-reaction-extreme-weather-hits-worlds-seven-continents-in-july-2023/). In the words of Secretary-General António Guterres, “the era of global boiling has arrived.”
Even so, despite an early September heatwave, I must add a warning for many parts of the UK to: “… watch this space for early autumn flooding if the summer weather pattern returns!”
How long will our luck hold?
The better news is that researchers are now fairly confident that the huge pulse of warm Pacific Ocean water released by El Niño and linked to worldwide weather chaos will be replaced in the next three years by the system’s colder La Niña phase.
A new fear is that the cycle, which this year brought us a continual trudge of North Atlantic low-pressure systems that are usually steered north over Scotland by a northerly-placed Azores high-pressure zone, is accelerating, and we could see a devastating El Niño as often as every second year.
Whatever eventually happens, there are steps we can take to help protect lives, property, and assets.
Action – globally and in our own backyard
Faced by so many knowns and unknowns, I thought it would be useful to draw together some of the complex causes and impacts of this year’s El Niño event as a future yardstick.
We may be staring down the barrel of the largest climate challenge our species has faced in 120,000 years. But we are not helpless. The UN, governments, plus political, business and civic leaders, want massive global greenhouse gas emissions cuts. But, we must also do more to help ourselves locally.
Enzygo’s (www.enzygo.com) response can be summed up in three words – ‘preparation, preparation, preparation’. We have applied this maxim to the growing risks of flooding since before the environmental crisis began – and that threat continues.
However, we need to apply the preparation principle more widely.
Below, I look at whether the El Niño phenomena is getting worse, and the potential dangers of the new ‘Anthropocene’ age. But building on our accumulated flooding experience, I also outline some practical steps we can take. Finally, I consider how we can cope and adapt to life in a hot climate.
El Niño (boy-child) and La Niña (girl child) are complementary parts of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern. A key question is whether they are becoming more frequent and intense?
The answer is not simple. Worrying about a cascade of falling ‘domino’ tipping points is a natural reaction. But the real situation is more nuanced, according to New Scientist (NS) (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2387698-is-climate-change-accelerating-and-is-it-worse-than-we-expected/?utm_source=onesignal&utm_medium=push&utm_campaign=2023-08-19-Is-climate-chan.)
For better and for worse
NS notes that average surface temperature rises are well within the range predicted by models for current greenhouse gases (GHG) levels – and are actually near the low end, according to climate scientist and energy systems analyst Zeke Hausfather at Berkeley Earth (https://berkeleyearth.org/are-temperatures-this-summer-hotter-than-scientists-expected/).
July’s heat could be due to natural variability; it might take years for any new long-term trend to emerge. However, that does not preclude temperature rises above the 2.70C now predicted. Little is also known about feedback systems that could elevate GHG levels, such as dying forests.
But there have been other extremes. March 2022 also saw temperatures rise up to 38.5°C above normal in the East Antarctica interior, followed by the worst heatwave in human history in China.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meanwhile, says there is little hard evidence that climate change has been underestimated, although data can take decades and centuries to collect.
Welcome to the Anthropocene era
Scientists also agree that a new geological epoch in the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history has begun – the Anthropocene. New epochs are usually defined either by mass extinctions or dramatic global geological events. Climate change might cause the former.
Without a global change of direction, we could be pushing our home planet towards its sixth mass extinction event since the end of the last ice age – the Holocene (https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-is-the-sixth-mass-extinction-and-what-can-we-do-about-it).
Which is why biodiversity and nature recovery are high on the global agenda (‘Biodiversity is now a frontline climate change issue for everyone’ – https://www.enzygo.com/news/biodiversity-is-now-a-frontline-climate-change-issue-for-everyone/).
Chins-up – no doom-scrolling
More positively, we must act locally, whatever ‘the world’ decides to do. For homes and business properties, some preparation now is better than no preparation.
We must expect extreme weather in any month … of any year. If you don’t live on a hill, but by a road at the bottom of a slope, councils or water companies will not be upgrading your local sewers in pace with heavier rainfall!
That means having our own adaptation plans.
What can we do?
A good starting point is to extend existing flood preparedness to extreme weather in general.
Many people remember the wet July of 2007 when 103mm of rain fell in 24 hours on the North York Moors. An estimated 100mm also fell on Hull, plus 77mm on Emley Moor in West Yorkshire.
Prepare now for worse is to come!
– Rising damp – knowing the flood risks
The public is increasingly aware of pluvial (surface water), fluvial (river), groundwater (underground), and tidal (coastal) flooding risks that can arrive quickly, often in isolated areas, and disappear just as swiftly.
Environment Agency surface water flood risk maps are freely available to everyone, and can be checked with business or home postcodes. Installing automatic airbricks and flood guards are also simple but effective ideas. If you are unsure what products are best for you, please contact me.
For further practical information and advice on flood prevention and protection, also see ‘Property flood protection – two good reasons for early planning’ (https://www.enzygo.com/news/property-flood-protection-two-good-reasons-for-early-planning/).
– Joining the property ladder – read the detail
If you are thinking about buying property, I strongly recommend you actually read- rather than just scan – the search results. Seriously reconsider buying anywhere with flooding risks, even if the price seems attractive!
We are now seeing a growing migratory trend away from flood-prone residential areas and coastal erosion sites driven by low resale property values, high insurance costs … and the misery of continual flooding. This is likely to intensify.
– Caution – double-checking
If you do buy property, make sure it is sufficiently resilient to the flooding risks mentioned above, and safe as refuge until flooding recedes.
The Environment Agency also suggests that flood-prone home and business owners stock up on food. Apologies if that has a doomsday ‘prepper’ ring to it!
However, the tough truth is that no ‘hero’ government agency or local authority is going to ride to the rescue if you have your back to the wall in a moment of crisis.
Taking the heat
Since 2012, bushfires have been on the UK national risk register of events to prepare for. Urban areas are included. In 2022, a major London incident involved ten separate blazes; more than 20,000 hectares of land burned through the year (https://www.zurich.co.uk/news-and-insight/wildfires_in_the_uk).
Vulnerable countries like Greece and Italy need to improve their fire risk mitigation. Managing vegetation, or adding breaks between populated and grassland/bush areas, is vital. Countries that fight bushfires regularly must also share their know-how with less experienced nations – like the UK.
– Fatalities and planning changes
In 2022, UK temperatures reached 40.30C – that will not be a one off record. Heatwaves caused some 3,712 excess deaths – a figure that will keep rising without meaningful planning reform that ensures future buildings are heat resilient. Insulation is important here.
The planning system must respond with a better understanding of, and legislation for, efficient insulation, plus temperature regulation in businesses and homes. Always prioritise well-insulated properties when house-hunting. Check EPC certificates at the very least.
Most UK people live in older homes that are hard to adapt retrospectively to higher temperatures. Financial constraints also limit the use of air conditioning – which is energy-intensive too.
– Heatwaves – staying cool
But there are things we can do. Concrete and asphalt in towns and cities absorb heat by day but radiate it out at night when people sleep. France and Ireland have a mandatory maximum of 260C in sleeping rooms at night. To help, we can construct new properties and communities differently.
Building design, plus the small gaps between property, and big public spaces, are key factors. Trees reduce heat retention. Clean white roofs can reflect away 80% of the sunlight that hits them; grey roofs only 20%. Passive methods could save 25% of the energy now used for heating and cooling.
With some 4.75 billion people currently living in non-rural areas, and almost 70% of the world’s population expected to do so by 2050, these largely overlooked steps can make a big difference.
– Simple practical steps
We can, however, make more use of out-of-fashion window shutters, blinds, or tinted glass. Better room layouts improve internal ventilation flows.
Designers and architects could also treat walls and windows facing north, south, east, and west differently – perhaps using deciduous trees foliage to shield southern facades in summer which vanishes conveniently in winter.
Trees in general are crucially important in not only heat mitigation, but also improving air quality and controlling flooding (‘The Right and Wrong Way to Manage Severe Floods’ – https://www.enzygo.com/news/the-right-and-wrong-way-to-manage-severe-floods/).
I must also explain more about Enzygo as an independent multidisciplinary consultancy.
Our specialist teams develop bespoke innovative solutions to manage different threat combinations. These increasingly involve flood risk assessments, but also by default design factors linked to heat control.
We consider wet, dry and hot conditions in: – environmental audits; environmental impact assessments (EIA); planning practice guidance; environmental management systems; plus environmental permitting regulations and landscape management advice.
Because trees and vegetation are crucial in a warm wet world, we also provide tree surveys and arboriculture services https://www.enzygo.com/arboriculture/, plus expertise in hydrology (https://www.enzygo.com/hydrology/), permitting (https://www.enzygo.com/permits/), planning (https://www.enzygo.com/planning/), and landscape (https://www.enzygo.com/landscape/).
Getting in touch
If adaptation is important to you, and you would like to discuss the points above, please contact me directly.
Scott Dawson, Principal Consultant, Enzygo Ltd