Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day - Climate Change in Ireland

"Top o'the morning to you!" Or since that is never actually said in Ireland, "Lá Shona Fhéile Pádraig!" (Happy St. Patrick's Day!) On this annual day of drinking green beer and remembering our Irish roots (even if we don't have any Irish roots), it's a good time to think about what man-made climate change means for Ireland.

Ireland's status as an island and its location in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean presents difficulties as well as moderation. Often cold and wet (and dreary), Ireland also gets some warming influence from the Gulf Stream. It's classified as having an "oceanic climate." In general you can expect a moderate climate with a lot of rainfall and relatively stable temperatures.

But climate change will un-moderate Ireland to some extent. The Irish EPA says that temperatures will continue to increase:

The clearest trend is evident in the temperature records which show a mean temperature increase of 0.7o C between 1890 and 2008, i.e. an increase of 0.06o C per decade. The increase was 0.4o C during the period 1980-2008, i.e. equivalent to 0.14o C per decade.

They also note that six of the ten warmest years have been since 1990, the rate of temperature increase has sped up in recent decades, and there has been a reduction of frost days combined with a shortening of the length of the frost season. Even more worrisome is the increase in annual rainfall in northern and western areas, which will increase river and coastal flooding likelihood and magnitude.

The Irish Met Office also notes that temperatures could increase 3 to 4 degrees C by the end of the century, that sea levels around Ireland could rise on average about 3.5 cm (1.4 inches) per decade, that there are likely increases in storm events and increased risk of flooding in winter.

Add in the adverse impacts on local animal and plant species due to warming temperatures and increased ocean acidification, and the effects on temperature-sensitive fisheries, and man-made climate change is an important issue for Ireland. A new study by Professor John Sweeney suggests these problems could be severe:

“Climate change will produce significant changes in habitats and ecosystems by changing the viability of species,” Sweeney explains. “New entrants are likely to appear and some ecological niches will no longer exist.”

And then there is peat. The historic and current importance of the vast peat bogs comes into question as the warming temperatures increase the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, from the peat.

In short, Ireland has enjoyed (in a manner of speaking) a more moderate and stable climate for thousands of year, but it is not immune to the impacts of climate change. The already challenging conditions will become even more challenging, especially as rising sea levels, ocean temperatures, and acidification have greater and greater impact on the seagoing resources of this island country.