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Cautious response to UK climate projections

rainfall.jpgLong-awaited projections of how climate change will impact the UK have been met with caution by scientists.

The projections, released yesterday in London, offer the most detailed picture yet of how the UK – piece by piece, in sections just 25 km sq – will be affected by various climate impacts.

Their main message is that without substantial efforts to cut global greenhouse gas emissions, Britons could be in for a hard time by the 2080s. While the risk of flooding will worsen in the North West, the South East will face an anticipated 22% decline in summer rainfall. If emissions continue to rise, London will likely experience a 2-6°C degree rise in temperature and sea-level rise of 36cm.

The UK government hopes the information will enable citizens and local authorities adapt to the changes that lie ahead, but some fear the projections provide misleading information.

That’s because the method used to produce these highly detailed projections of the future is new – and hasn’t yet been through peer-review. Bob Watson, chief scientist with the UK Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is confident it’s just a matter of time before the methodology is used on a broader scale. He expects it “will be taken up by other regions and highlighted by the IPCC in their next report”.

But while the projections were originally slated for release last November, an independent committee was convened at the eleventh hour to check out the methodology.

Oxford climatologist Myles Allen was on the committee, and he’s concerned that the results stretch the science beyond its current capabilities. His main worry is that as recently as 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn’t think that climate variables could be reliably resolved at spatial scales beyond a couple of 1000kms. And no research published since has challenged that view.

He spoke to me about this for Nature News, where I’ve covered the story in detail. He also spoke of his concerns on yesterday’s Newsnight, which is definitely worth a look.

Others have expressed specific concern about data from the online ‘weather generator’, a tool released by DEFRA that allows users to plug in their postcode and retrieve daily future weather sequences resolved down to 5 km sq over 30 year time periods.

Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency says that while the EEA endorses the climate projections issued by UKCIP, “below 25km the statistical noise in the data render them of no practical use”.

Asked about the criticisms on Newsnight, UK environment secretary Hilary Benn said “well, you could also quote a lot of other scientists who would talk about the benefit of these projections”.

Speaking to me today, Lenny Smith, a physics professor at Oxford University and the London School of Economics said that while there are valid scientific criticisms of the high resolution data, he’s concerned that they “could distract from the big picture message of how important climate change is”.

Olive Heffernan


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    Francis Massen said:

    Please remember the abysmal failure of the UK Met Office in predicting the weather of the last 3 summers. Should this failure in predicting relatively large-grid seasonal weather not induce some modesty and refrain from such blatant overhyping?

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    Michael J said:

    This was a nice article of the Cautious response to UK climate projections. I think another great site, If I might add, definitely as to be POPNOW. They are the largest college wide organization for global warming prevention. Although fairly new, the idea and concept is great. I applaud POPNOW and all the other environmental websites out there, keep up the good work!

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