For decades, climate experts have warned that Britain would suffer more extremes of weather as a result of global warming.
Rising sea levels threatening low-lying coastal communities, warmer and wetter winters and an increase in extremes like flooding are all part of the picture that has been painted.
But to date, questions as to whether this storm or those floods are an indication of actual climate change have been met with the same general answer: that one event does not prove, or disprove, the case, although it does reflect what we might experience in the future.
Today, experts from academic institutions across the UK will debate whether recent extremes – the cold winter of 2010, last year's wet weather and this year's cold spring – are in fact part of a pattern.
The Met Office played down the importance of the talks, saying it staged regular workshops on a range of issues across weather and climate science. But it is the first time that the series of unusual seasons, and whether they are linked, will be the sole item for discussion.
While national and inter- national policy makers need to know whether it is climate change or not, the Westcountry, where key industries are weather-dependent, is having to deal with the realities.
For leaders in the hard-pressed tourism industry, the crucial issue remains one of forecasting.
Malcolm Bell, the head of Visit Cornwall, said: "I think there is a growing frustration with the Met Office, but more so with weather presenters.
"The real problem we have got is when the weather is variable and there may be showers during the day, or over a weekend, that might only be a few minutes, or two or three hours, over a weekend, if people see a shower at all.
"If they are given the wrong impression, when there's little confidence in the forecast, it can do great damage to late bookings. Careless words from weather presenters can cost the industry dear."
The region's other staple industry – farming – has suffered too with the costs of last summer's washout being counted in the millions of pounds.
Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said the swing from "drought to deluge" in recent years had been of "almost Biblical proportions".
He said: "I think we are ahead of the game and I think there is some great work going on at the Met Office, although there have been problems in the past, such as the barbecue summer forecast, which haven't been terribly helpful.
"The important thing is to get forecasts as accurate as possible."
It may spoil our picnics and make us curse, but it’s rain that makes the West so beautiful
The Westcountry has a higher annual rainfall than other English regions – Martin Hesp takes an overview of what this can mean both to us and to our landscape
If moisture-laden air wasn’t heavy, this region would look very, very different. It wouldn’t be so green – nor would it feature our famous network of verdant valleys filled with iconic woodlands and rushing rivers. We’re on a peninsula of land that sticks out into a vast wet ocean which provides plenty of damp air. The prevailing winds blow the heavy, moisture-filled, atmosphere our way, which means it collides with our massive, unmoveable hills. The damp air can’t rise nimbly out of the way, so it rains.That might not be the most scientific explanation of why we get so much precipitation – but it’s clearer than Westcountry “mizzle” – and, like it or not, it is the stuff that falls from the skies which has entirely shaped, blended, coloured, made fertile and generally sculpted the beautiful Westcountry. Other areas of the UK get rained on as well – but nowhere near as much as our thin, hill-bound, peninsula. For an example of just what a difference the hills-parked-next-to-ocean scenario can make in meteorological precipitation terms, you can even see massive variables in rainfall within our single region. Weymouth, located away from higher hills at the eastern end of the peninsula, collects an average annual rainfall of just 636mm – travel west to Dartmoor-bound Chagford and you’ll be rained upon by an altogether wetter 2,227mm a year.The yearly average rainfall for the Westcountry taken as a whole is 25 per cent higher than the average across the rest of the country. No wonder our landscape has been formed by rainfall. Picturesque they may be, but the coombes are really nothing more than a giant flood-relief scheme put in place by nature. We live, or build, in those valleys at our peril. Often we loathe the stuff that falls out of our skies – but perhaps we should also love it. Here are some interesting facts which back the undeniable notion that we need rain: one inch (25mm) of precipitation falling on one acre amounts to a startling 22,259 gallons (101,175 litres) of water – weighing 101 tonnes. In the average English household, water consumption is 150 litres per person per day – which means a day’s water requirements for 675 people would be satisfied by that one inch falling on a single acre.Let’s take Devon as an example area – here the annual average rainfall is 36 inches (900mm) – so the yearly total for a single acre is 801,324 gallons (3.65 million litres) of water. This means that – at 150 litres per person, per day – a single acre’s rainfall could provide 66 Devonians with enough water for a year. But Devon has an area of 1,658,278 acres – so its landscapes could, in theory, provide enough water for 109 million people. Which means that, with a population of just 1.3 million people, Devon has 84 times more water falling on its landscapes than its citizens need. Perhaps we should be bottling the stuff and selling it at a premium to the many areas of world that don’t get enough rain – or any rain at all. Which does not include Cherrapunji, in north-eastern India. I mention this location in order to put our rainfall, and the misery it can cause, into some perspective. Cherrapunji has the world’s heaviest average rainfall with an annual of 10,922mm. That is 35 feet per annum! One year, an oceanic 87 feet of rain fell up there in the hills of Assam – which is enough to make our otherwise-damp Westcountry look like a branch of the Sahara.
Temperature to rise 5.3C
The world is on track to see temperature rises of up to 5.3C by the end of the century, the International Energy Agency has warned as it set out swift action governments must take to curb climate change.A global average temperature rise of 2C from pre-industrial levels is being targeted by the United Nations in what scientists believe would be manageable climate change, avoiding worst-case-scenario increases in droughts, storms, floods and sea levels.But in a recent report, which outlined a series of measures to reduce emissions using existing technology that would have no net economic cost, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said the planet was on course to more than double existing targets.IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said: “Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities. But the problem is not going away – quite the opposite.“This report shows that the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6C and 5.3C, but also finds that much more can be done to tackle energy-sector emissions without jeopardising economic growth, an important concern for many governments.”The IEA said improving energy efficiency in homes, buildings, industry and transport, limiting the use of inefficient coal-fired power stations, reducing methane releases from oil and gas production and removing some fossil fuel subsidies could all help cut emissions.Together the four steps could reduce emissions by 3.1 billion tonnes (3.1 gigatonnes) by 2020 compared to carrying on with “business as usual”, the IEA said.
‘Location and lifestyle’ remain top selling points
The unpredictable Westcountry weather and extreme events of recent years will not deter people wanting to relocate to the region, a leading estate agent said yesterday.Devon and Cornwall have long been a magnet for second home owners, retirees and those looking for a change in the pace of life, drawn by breathtaking coastal views and beautiful countryside.And Richard Copus, spokesman for the National Association of Estate Agents in the Westcountry, said he saw no reason for that to change, although some aspects of the weather were regularly raised by prospective buyers.“Some people may not like it up on Dartmoor because it can be wetter and windier than everywhere else,” he said, “but equally there are those who love that sort of thing, the wildness.“Snow and flooding are the issues we get asked about most. People want to know if they are going to get cut off when it snows or whether they might get flooded if water runs off the fields during heavy rain.”Mr Copus, a director of Wood’s Distinctive Homes, said “location and lifestyle”, though, remained the key draw for people moving from outside the region.“I always think that Devon is an accentuation of everything that people expect from the English countryside,” he added. “The hedges are twice as high and the fields are twice as small. It is something a bit special and that has not changed.”
Fragile transport network tested by Mother Nature
The fragile state of the Westcountry transport infrastructure has been exposed time and again by the weather.Problems were at their worst last year – the wettest on record – when torrential rain caused widespread flooding and landslides across the road and rail network.While the coastal section of the mainline at Dawlish has long been identified as vulnerable to the predicted effects of climate change, all eyes last year were on Cowley Bridge, Exeter. Floodwaters swept across the track three times, leaving the region effectively cut off by rail, often for days.The resilience of the region’s rail network has become more important than ever after the loss of Plymouth’s air link, and the single fully dualled road into the far South West. And political pressure is being brought to bear on the Government and Network Rail to provide greater protection to the line. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin admitted it was “unacceptable” the Westcountry’s rail links were severed.It later emerged that Network Rail had been ordered by the Department for Transport to review 40 vulnerable sites – including Cowley Bridge – that cost up to £20 million of emergency funding to repair.