Weather for 2023-2024 – and far … far … far beyond!

5 December 2023 By 0

Forecasting our winter weather after a topsy-turvy record-breaking 12 months is challenging. With so much changing quickly, I thought a glimpse at our ancient world – and its long-term future – could make a gripping yarn to share by this year’s Christmas log-fire … with the reassuring message that in our own small tough pocket of time, we can still shape a better future.

When I say tough, I’m thinking of inflation, high living costs, expensive energy, and war, but also punishing heatwaves, wildfires, fears the global weather is spinning out of control, plus the world’s difficulties – highlighted at the COP28 international climate summit – in ‘getting a grip’.

So how is this seasonal?

Good point. I swallow my pride at this time of year and make a humble stab at predicting our weather from December into next spring. I’ll share my wisdom on that in a moment.

However, I thought at this pivotal point in the Earth’s environmental history, it could help to look back billions of years at the hot and cold extremes Planet Earth has endured in its long geological evolution, their cause, and any parallels today.

The positive news might be that the current situation is not as dire as in the past … hang on to that thought!

We do, of course, have our work cut out avoiding, mitigating, and learning to live with, what to humans are still very adverse environmental conditions.

Finding sustainable solutions to these complex modern challenges is an all-year-round focus for Enzygo as an independent multi-disciplinary environmental consultancy (www.enzygo.com).

Come on Matt, your weather forecast!

OK … but no promises. The indications this year are that because the current disruptive El Niño event may peak around December, conditions could be drier than in previous winters, but perhaps with an increased risk of snow and severe cold spells.

I think this could lead to the possibility of heavy snow falls around the Christmas period in our part of the world that could create significant flooding as it melts.

There is also a possibility, according to the UN, that this cyclical Pacific Ocean phenomenon will continue into the first half of 2024 with potential weather impacts around the world. But, hopefully, not affecting the Paris Olympics!

But predicting snowfall is a ticklish task because British skies are a battleground between cold arctic and warmer Atlantic tropical air. All rain initially forms as snow high in the atmosphere which melts when it falls below the ‘freezing level’. When this level coincides with the ground, we get snow!

Is 2023 a precedent for 2024?

Not necessarily. Although one odd feature might become a permanent fixture. The weather in 2023 was divided into chunks lasting for many days or weeks. We might see this again.

January started mild and unsettled. A colder February was the driest since 1993. March saw deluges in places where no rain fell in February – and was the sixth wettest on record.

April and May were cool. In June, temperatures soared to 32.2°C – a heatwave made the month the warmest on record with the ‘fingerprint of climate change’, according to the Met Office. July and August were disappointing in the UK – while Europe suffered searing temperatures and wildfires.

But September was the most abnormally warm month ever observed, In the words of University of Reading climate scientist Ed Hawkins, temperature rises were … “Surprising. Astounding. Staggering. Unnerving. Bewildering. Flabbergasting. Disquieting. Gobsmacking. Shocking. Mind boggling.”

Stationary weather

What is unusual was how long these discrete periods lasted because of a feature called blocked weather patterns. This may be a future portent.

The jet stream high in the atmosphere often rushes from west to east in nearly a straight line, taking weather systems with it and creating continuously changing daily conditions on the ground.

But the jet stream often weakens too, winding up (northwards) and down (southwards) in big ridges and troughs. Weather systems can then become stationary for long periods that may bring heatwaves and/or cold spells, floods and drought.

Some studies suggest climate change might make this more common, with small north-to-south temperature contrasts between the warming Arctic and other temperate regions. Record-hot oceans are also ‘fuelling’ storms.

Mass extinctions

This may not be in the Yuletide spirit. But there is evidence that in the last half a billion years, life on earth saw five well-documented mass extinctions.

Is a sixth extinction, the Holocene or Anthropocene, caused by human damage to the environment, now underway? Fortuitously, the geological record suggests that if we stop destroying nature, natural processes alone will not create another extinction event now.

So, let’s concentrate on that hope, but also the intriguing tale of ancient mysteries, great monsters, catastrophic floods and burning deserts that existed pretty much where we live today!

‘Once upon a time’ … a ripping yarn?

Or as George Lucas might have it “A long time ago in a world not very far away….” weather conditions were far worse than we are experiencing today … and will be once again, as we will see.

– Cool young sun – and a cold snowball

Two good starting points are three billion years ago when the Sun was a faint star, and the ‘Snowball Earth’ theory between 800 and 550 million years ago.

The young sun was 30% dimmer than today – the Earth was not frozen, however, and the oceans were teeming with life. As the sun got brighter the atmospheric CO2 concentration fell. Living organisms multiplied and changed the ‘air’ and temperature to suit themselves – the ‘Gaia’ principle.

Earth’s atmosphere became oxygen-rich, turning methane into CO2 and water, and destroying the globe’s early methane greenhouse blanket. The theory is that there were at least two snowball Earth glaciations during which the planet had no liquid water. This ended when trapped water vapour created a short-term greenhouse effect.

However, primitive red and green algae and fungi did survive through the 10-million-year Cryogenian period. If this speculation is true, snowball-Earth happened before the sudden radiation of more complex multicellular creatures known as the Cambrian explosion circa 530,000 million years ago.

– Carbon dioxide build up … the ‘Great Dying’

In the Permian 250 million years ago, some 90% of life was wiped out as volcanos spewed CO2 into the atmosphere. This warmed the Earth rapidly, although nowhere near as swiftly as today.

Tectonic movements had created the super-continent of Pangea and very dry conditions. With vulnerable young forests, oxygen levels fell; the seas held more sulphur. This led to the Great Dying over some 100,000 years when up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial species, including plants and insects, vanished.

Pangaea broke apart about 200 million years ago.

– End of the dinosaur

Much more recently, in fact some 65 million years ago, an asteroid hitting the earth threw up a vast dust cloud that cooled the planet rapidly. Anything that could not dig a safe hole died out – apart from birds.

The key point researchers take from this is that high heat levels are not the only critical factor. Dinosaurs evolved to live in a certain climate. When it cooled, they died. Other smaller creatures found safe niches, including our ancestors.

The implication might be that if we keep on adapting for a climate that is disappearing, we too could face an existential threat. But we’re smarter than that.

– Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

Some 56 million years ago, this event caused by volcanism and an abrupt change in the carbon cycle forced temperatures up by 50C to 80C to a peak that would be dangerous for today’s human.

Warming happened not over millions but just 10,000 to 20,000 years – significantly slower than today. This is also roughly when the northern Atlantic Ocean was formed.

Not only were many species wiped out, there was a massive miniaturisation of some species to cope with the heat – but also many evolutionary casualties along the way.

– The Pleistocene

About three million years ago, CO2 levels dropped to near where they are today, but the Pleistocene which started about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until 11,700 years ago probably offers better clues about our modern climate.

There was no Greenland ice cap, sea levels were 10 or 20 feet higher, and Earth was warmer than today. The only wild card was ‘hysteresis’ when physical impacts lag behind the force that make them. Things are different during cooling than warming. Temperatures might be the same but with different effects.

The encouraging argument is that hysteresis could buy us a small safety margin – maybe half a degree. However, this is a very small range in which to get our mitigation right!

– The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)

The Ice Ages began 2.4 million years ago. This last ‘maximum’ cold snap called the Great Ice Age circa 21,000 years ago near the end of the Pleistocene pushed global sea levels more than 400 feet lower than today; glaciers covering some 8% of the Earth.

– The Common Era

Covering the last 2,000 years, this concerns the here and now, with vital cause and effect questions about El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific, polar ice melting rates, changing monsoon seasons, and the speed of the Atlantic Conveyor – the Gulf Stream.

The fear is that they are all changing at a faster rate than previously predicted but in line with a swift up-tick in temperatures since the mid-twentieth century.

The fear is that they are all changing at a faster rate than previously predicted but in line with a swift up-tick in temperatures since the mid-twentieth century.

Hope?

Collective evidence from the past indicates we may have a safety margin; science suggests that if we act quickly on an unprecedented scale, we could avoid even worse consequences. In other words, the future is not necessarily bleak with runaway warming yet … if we move swiftly.

– The Earth 250 million years from now

Continents move, collide and separate. A quarter of a billion years from now, the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa carried on their tectonic plates are expected to form another supercontinent – Pangaea Ultima – as they crash into the Americas. The Atlantic Ocean will shrink again.

The result will be a burning hot desert interior thousands of kilometres from the coast. With the Sun 2.5% more luminous than now, some 92% of Earth’s surface at more than 40°C will be too hot for mammals, plants, and many other types of life, researchers predict.

But mass extinctions tend to be followed by big bursts of biodiversity as competition for resources decreases.

Maybe cockroaches will have evolved by then to wear bowler hats and carry briefcases!

Enzygo

Becoming parochial for a moment, one of our key service focuses is ecology (https://www.enzygo.com/ecology/).

My colleague Chris Scofield recently wrote a very interesting insight feature into the fragile state of the Earth’s biodiversity (‘Biodiversity is now a frontline climate change issue for everyonehttps://www.enzygo.com/news/biodiversity-is-now-a-frontline-climate-change-issue-for-everyone/).

We are also monitoring closely, and expect to report soon, on the Government’s decision to push back the introduction of mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) requirements to early in 2024 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/biodiversity-net-gain-moves-step-closer-with-timetable-set-out).

Contact

If you would like to discuss any issues relating to the points above, please feel free to contact me directly at any point throughout the year – except perhaps 25th December!

Merry Christmas.

Matt Travis, Managing Director, Enzygo Ltd