Last week, whilst brazenly wandering the streets of London, I developed a shamefully amusing sunburn on my neck and face, the only two portions of my pasty skin that were exposed to the timorous rays. The weather is quickly beginning to brighten — spring being recently hailed in on 20 March by Stonehenge’s eccentric pagan patrons — and warm temperatures are beginning to feel more and more quotidian.
Over February, the UK experienced unseasonably warm weather. It was Wales where temperatures first peaked above the threshold of 20C, unheard of according to Met Office (the previous recorded February maximum was 19.7C, recorded in Greenwich). This February’s peak temperature of 21.2C was recorded in Kew Gardens, though warm temperatures were not amiss north of the border, with a national record of 18.3C set in Aberdeenshire.
Last February was an entirely different affair, when we were struck by the “Beast from the East”. This weather system, made all the more terrifying by its internal rhyme, yet comparably pathetic to anything in North America, entirely crippled the UK. In our true fighting spirit, the country remained a paragon of calm. However, many missed the memo, with the shelves of numerous supermarkets stripped of staple goods. Temperatures reached a low -11C in Nairnshire with 57cm of snowfall in Gloucestershire; 95 died across Europe, 17 of which were from the UK.
It is no wonder that this year the Express was quick to highlight the “glorious warm weather”, with the Mirror jumping upon the hackneyed phrase of the “mercury rising”. Such a positive outlook was also found among St Andreans, with hammocks strung near the library and plush-down jackets shedded for shorts and t-shirts. Whilst the warmth was a pleasant respite from the incessant sea breeze, it also elicited another reaction: fear. These conditions are exceptional (in a bad way), record-breaking (in a concerning way), and ultimately pleasant (in an incomprehensibly threatening way). While taking such a critical stance in these summertime conditions is difficult, it is that exact description of the weather where any sense of joy should fall flat in the face of rationality. For many Britons, a sun any bolder warrants taking matters into their own hands; out will come the factor 50, and incessant headlines of it being warmer than Barcelona will plug any slow news day. But is this “taps-aff” response — heading to the beach, having a jug of Pimms, enjoying a bowl strawberries and cream — simply us masking disaster with vacuous summertime pursuits?
Warm conditions have resulted in a cognitive dissonance. It becomes hard to interpret something that is ostensibly nice as sordid, a reminder of our impact on the planet. Moreover, the weather of the February before was the inverse — the climate naturally varies, so might this just be a blip? It is this erratic weather that appears to be the future.
Professor Mark Maslin notes how Arctic sea ice, which increases in area in the winter months, serves as a barrier which stops weather systems moving further north; hence, rising sea temperatures are reducing the protection these ice caps provide, resulting in variability. The weakening jet stream is also responsible for weather extremes, and there is conclusive evidence that we are responsible for such a change. The UK is not familiar with variability, or ready for it.
Last year, while it failed to “Come Home”, the UK experienced its joint hottest summer on record and the driest since 1925. The heat wave lasted for over a month and resulted in widespread drought and wildfires, such as that on Saddleworth Moor which burnt for the three straight weeks. Deaths spiked and hosepipe bans were in effect nationwide. Parched pastures and dying crops resulted in winter hay and silage being fed to animals despite it being the summer, a huge financial cost to farmers which impacted them into the winter months. Cereal and wheat crop yields fell by between 10 per cent and 15 per cent. But nobody seemed to mind. After all, we had a major sporting event and a wedding to occupy ourselves with. Our newfound optimism allowed us to put Brexit to one side as we channelled passion into our 23-man squad, while others distracted themselves with their daily dose of Love Island.
Hot summers feel like the norm, with Pimms now de rigueur. This sunny disposition is becoming a regular attitude, with the National Academy of Sciences noting how, as extreme conditions seem less exceptional, our response lessens — a slow acclimatisation akin to the boiling frog fable. When a frog is thrown in boiling water it jumps out, whereas when the water is slowly brought to the boil it does not. But how, then, do we quantify the nature of such an abstract threat? Why should the students and residents of St Andrews alike care? Because, though we will not be subsumed by the sea like Papua New Guinea, it will still have far-reaching impacts on this region of Scotland. Soil quality will degrade due to moisture and heat stress. Diseases will impact livestock. Vital pollinating insects are rapidly falling in numbers. Biodiversity will be impacted as inept organisms will die or fail to compete with other species and non-native pests. The thriving coastal habit will be impacted whilst rising sea levels will likely impact the low-lying links courses; the beach stability is already impacted by storm surges.
Fortunately, some progress is being made. Though much criticism has been levied, many American democrats are making ambitious attempts to push forward their Green New Deal. Meanwhile, in the UK, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party has proposed a similar solution.
The extraordinary February conditions also did not go unnoticed by the masses. Google searches related to climate change increased by 40 per cent at the height of the warmth, with the question “How will climate change affect the UK?” being the top climate-related question.
So should we enjoy the warm summer weather? Yes, we’re on the way to catastrophic climate change and not nearly making enough progress to stop it. We might as well enjoy ourselves as we destroy our planet through our own somehow barely fettered arrogance. But do consider your individual influence, whether that be joining the political struggle or analysing your own impact on the environment. After all, climate activist Greta Thunberg has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and she’s 16.