September 26, 2023

Rainier in the south than in the north if the UK weather trend reverses

Forest burning with mountain in the background

A bushfire rages on the Affric Kintail Way in Scotland

The north of the UK is generally much wetter than the south, but this summer that pattern is being turned upside down.

Water levels across much of Scotland are very low with some rivers breaking records, while southern England is largely healthy after a very wet spring.

The UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology warns of an increased risk of drought for farmers and nature.

A North Wales farmer told BBC News he has already nearly lost a crop.

Meanwhile, experts from the Wildlife Trusts say they see signs of stressed wildlife.

But current projections make it unlikely that the UK will face drinking water shortages or a ban on water hoses this summer.

However, “vigilance is still warranted” in the South East after demand for water during the recent heat wave may have depleted supplies, explains Jamie Hannaford, UKCEH Group Leader for Hydrological Status and Outlooks.

Climate change is driving up global temperatures, but there are currently no studies establishing a clear link between human-induced climate change and an altered risk of drought in the UK, the Met Office said.

UKCEH is an environmental research institute that analyzes data from the Environment Agency and other government agencies.

A map of British river flows in May shows a clear division between southern England and Wales, compared to Scotland, North West England and North Wales.

Map showing that river discharges were very low in Scotland in May, compared to higher river discharges in the south of England

Map showing that river discharges were very low in Scotland in May, compared to higher river discharges in the south of England

The River Nevis in western Scotland recorded its lowest May flow since records began in 1983, while the Ewe had its second lowest since 1971.

The Highlands had the eighth driest May since 1890.

Last week the Scottish Environment Protection Agency issued water scarcity warnings for most of the country, with Loch Maree in the North West Highlands facing significant shortages.

In contrast, most of the southern regions received more than 140% of their average precipitation. Wessex experienced its fifth wettest spring since records began in 1890.

An exception is in Devon and Cornwall, where water hose bans remain in place after drought affected reservoir levels last year.

The effects of dry weather are already being felt in parts of Scotland and Wales. A large bushfire raged in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, on Wednesday night.

Last week, firefighters in the Scottish Highlands battled to bring the UK’s largest fire under control to date.

Llŷr Jones, a farmer in Corwen, North Wales, has already noticed the effects of heat on his farm this year.

Temperatures in his flock of 32,000 hens have reached a steady 28C over the last 10 days.

“We put in extra fans and encourage them to drink more water. They don’t like anything higher than 25C, so we’re constantly checking to make sure they’re happy,” he says.

A field of spring barley planted in April was on the verge of failure until Monday thunderstorms saved the harvest, he explains.

“Last year it reached 32°C on this mountain in Wales. You get to a point where you can do nothing but desperately hope for rain to save the crops,” he says.

He lives on the family farm with his wife and three young children, and says it’s clear they’ll have to change the way they farm.

“We are fully aware of the changing weather and we are doing everything we can to adapt,” he explains.

The area is already showing signs of drought, explains Ali Morse of The Wildlife Trusts.

“Vegetation is starting to look a bit drier, flowers aren’t as healthy. When you look at the landscape, it doesn’t look that green,” she explains.

But the “hidden effects” of drought on wildlife are really concerning, she says, adding that there is some evidence that insect numbers are lower this year after the 2022 drought.

Butterflies and moths may be affected if they lay their eggs on dried out plants, or young fish may have stunted growth in rivers with low currents, affecting their ability to mate as adults.

“If we avoid a drought this year it was a coincidence, not because the UK did the right things to avoid it,” she added.

Data visualization by Erwan Rivault

An image showing ways to save water at home

An image showing ways to save water at home

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