Sea levels in Britain rising at double the rate of a century ago

British residents regard as 'unremarkable' temperatures that decades ago would have broken records

Earth Overshoot Day is the time of year by which people have used up all the resources that ecosystems can sustainably regenerate in one year. Here a farmer prepares a field for rapeseed oil crops in Itchingfield, south England. March 28, 2022. AFP
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The rise in sea levels around the UK is accelerating and has reached a rate more than double that in the first years of the 1900s.

A report from the UK’s Met Office found that the seas have risen by about 16.5 centimetres (6.5 ins) since 1990 alone, driven by annual increases of 3-5.2 millimetres a year.

The findings were released on Earth Overshoot Day, marking the time of year by which people have used up all the resources that ecosystems can sustainably regenerate in one year.

The Global Footprint Network and WWF say that the rest of 2022 will be lived in resource deficit.

This year, Earth Overshoot Day comes two days earlier than last year and several weeks sooner than it was in 2020, when it was marked on August 22.

"From January 1 to July 28, humanity has used as much from nature as the planet can renew in the entire year," said Mathis Wackernagel, president of the GFN.

"That's why July 28 is Earth Overshoot Day.

"The Earth has a lot of stock, so we can deplete Earth for some time, but we cannot overuse it for ever. It's like with money. We can spend more than we earn for some time until we're broke."

It would take 1.75 Earths to provide for the world's population in a sustainable way, according to the measure, which was created by researchers in the early 1990s.

GFN said Earth Overshoot Day has fallen ever earlier during the past 50 years.

In 2020, the date moved back three weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic, before returning to pre-coronavirus levels.

The burden is not evenly spread. If everyone lived as Americans do, the date would have fallen on March 13, Mr Wackernagel said.

The two NGOs blame the food production system and its considerable ecological footprint.

"In total, more than half of the planet's biocapacity [55 per cent] is used to feed humanity," they said.

Pierre Cannet, of WWF France, said: "A large part of the food and raw materials are used to feed animals and animals that are consumed afterwards."

In the EU, "63 per cent of arable land … is directly associated with animal production".

"Agriculture contributes to deforestation, climate change by emitting greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems, while using a significant share of fresh water," the NGOs said.

Based on scientific advice, they advocate reducing meat consumption in rich countries.

"If we could cut meat consumption by half, we could move the date of the overshoot by 17 days," said Laetitia Mailhes, of the GFN.

"Limiting food waste would push the date back by 13 days. That's not insignificant."

Ms Mailhes said that one third of the world's food was wasted.

Earth Overshoot Day it is not the only environmental metric faced by humanity.

The UK's Meteorological Office said last year's "unremarkable" temperatures would have been near record breaking only a few decades ago, showing how Britain's climate is changing.

The latest annual report on the state of the UK's climate, led by the Met Office, looks at temperature, rain and sunshine for 2021, as well as seasonal changes such as trees coming into leaf.

It also highlights extreme weather events last year, such as a new Northern Ireland temperature record in July, exceptional rain in October and Storm Arwen, which caused widespread disruption, brought down millions of trees, and caused deaths when it hit in November.

The report shows that last year's average temperatures were just 0.1ºC above the average for the period 1991-2020, with 2021 the 18th warmest on record in a data series stretching back to 1884.

But most of those 18 warmest years have occurred since the turn of the century, and if 2021's temperatures had occurred before 1990 it would have been the second warmest year on record, the Met Office said.

The most recent decade, from 2012 to 2021, was 1ºC warmer than the period 1961-1990, the peer-reviewed report published in the Royal Meteorological Society's International Journal of Climatology shows.

"When considering the UK climate over the whole year it might seem rather unremarkable," said Mike Kendon, from the Met Office National Climate Information Centre.

"However, it is telling that, whereas we consider 2021 as near average for temperature in the context of the current climate, had this occurred just over three decades ago it would have been one of the UK's warmest years on record."

The hottest temperature recorded in 2021 was 32.2ºC, at Heathrow on July 20.

That peak was relatively cool compared with the past decade, in which an extreme 38.7ºC was recorded in 2019, and with an average annual maximum temperature of 34.9ºC across the 10-year period.

It is also well below the searing extremes of more than 40ºC experienced across parts of England last week.

But the 32.2ºC maximum was well above the average top annual temperature of 31.4ºC in the period 1961-1990.

In 2021, rainfall was close to average levels, but levels of rain are also increasing over time, an outcome expected by scientists because, as the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more moisture.

Experts say that rain is likely to fall in more intense downpours, causing a greater risk of flooding.

The most recent decade has been, on average, 2 per cent wetter than 1991-2020 and 10 per cent wetter than 1961-1990 for the UK overall, and five of the 10 wettest years in a data series that stretches from 1836 have occurred this century.

"The report is very clear that we are seeing a change in our climate, whether that's temperature, precipitation, sea level rise," said Prof Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society.

"If we compare the last year to the recent climate, so the last few decades, it isn't that remarkable. It's quite normal now to see these temperatures.

"But if you look back over the whole series, 2021 and the recent climate is very remarkable."

Mr Kendon said: "What we regard as fairly normal now, in the past that would have been pretty unusual, so our perception of what is normal is changing as our climate changes."

Long-term trends show sea levels are rising more quickly and the number of air and ground frosts has declined.

And the number of days that homes need heating in winter has fallen by 11 per cent in the past decade, compared with 1961-1990.

The number of summer days on which temperatures are above thresholds when homes could need cooling has increased from 14 days for 1961-1990 to 25 days in the past decade for England.

But despite the warming climate, cold extremes are still possible, with 2021 having the frostiest April in records dating back to 1960, and temperatures plummeting to minus 23ºC in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, in February.

The exceptionally frigid April, which was colder than March, caused almost a split spring.

Species that normally come into leaf earlier in the spring, such as elder, leafed even earlier than normal, while later-leafing species such as oak were delayed by nearly four days.

A warm October meant that trees shed their leaves later, with the average "bare tree" date in autumn delayed for all monitored species.

Prof Tim Sparks, an expert volunteer for the Woodland Trust, whose Nature's Calendar citizen science scheme records the signs of the seasons, said that changes to species' behaviour in response to the changing climate could leave them out of sync.

"Each species can change at a different rate," Prof Sparks said. "That's where there's potential problems.

"The oak tree, which is one of our most important for biodiversity, can leaf early, but is that matching the rate of development of caterpillars that feed on those leaves, and matching the rate of development of great tits and blue tits who feed their chicks on caterpillars?"

Updated: July 28, 2022, 10:14 AM
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