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Newsletter 29th June 2007

- Weather or climate? - Empty political gesture of the month - Public transport - Air travel: fuel efficiency or noise levels?

Weather or climate?

Undoubtedly, 2007 has so far brought some fairly extreme weather. The UK had some exceptionally warm weather in April (after last year’s miserable, cold spring) but is now suffering an unseasonably wet June. All signs of climate change, some might say, before telling us that we can expect much more of the same unless we drastically reduce our carbon emissions. But is this weather really so unusual, or are we just sensitised to changes because climate change is constantly in the news these days? In a country seemingly obsessed with the weather, perhaps a few decades ago we Brits would just have put up our umbrellas and, to the mantra of “mustn’t grumble” just got on with things. Now, we are encouraged to see our behaviour as the cause.
 
In reality, weather records can be very surprising. On one hand, new ones are constantly being set, depending on the period of measurement and where it is made. On the other hand, some records are remarkably durable. Some random examples as food for thought: In June 2006, Perth (Western Australia) recorded its first sub-zero temperature since records began in 1880; the average minimum temperature in the city is about 10°C. The wettest recorded 24 hours in India occurred in 1876, with just under 41 inches of rain falling in Cherrapunji. This January in the UK was very warm: the Central England Temperature average was 7.0° (2.8° above the thirty year average). But  January 1921 was warmer, and January 2007 was actually only the fifth warmest since the CET records were first kept in 1659. The cause of such earlier warm spells in winter must have been something other than anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.
 
And even the present extremely wet June is by no means unprecedented. 25th was, by most reckoning, the wettest June day on record, although the rain was certainly not evenly distributed. 103.6mm (4.1 inches) was recorded near Hull, and Yorkshire and the Midlands were particularly badly effected. But according to Paul Simons, writing in the Weather Eye column in the Times on 27th

“In fact, dramatic rainfalls were striking Britain long before global warming was heard of. Many such downpours struck during the summer and, by coincidence, this Thursday marks the date 90 years ago when the largest June rainfall in a day was recorded at the small town of Bruton, Somerset.

A small, intense depression moved up the English Channel and disgorged huge downpours over Somerset, with 242.8 mm (9.56in) of rainfall in eight hours registered at Bruton.”
 
So perhaps we should not be surprised by the present weather. Paul Simons wrote the previous week about an apparent 10-year cycle

“Ten years ago was shocking, the wettest June of the 20th century. The first week of Wimbledon was so wet that matches had to be played on a Sunday for only the second time in the championship history. The Test match against Australia at Lord’s was badly disrupted, and it was so cold that snow fell on the Cairngorms at the end of the month.

June 1987 was the dullest on record, with a derisory four hours’ sunshine each day on average. Arctic winds kept it cool and the Test match against Pakistan at Lord’s was almost totally washed out. But the Outer Hebrides had glorious weather.

Thirty years ago, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Day, June 6, was wet, windy and so chilly that temperatures dropped to 7C (45F) in Glasgow.

June 1957 was plagued by violent thunderstorms, especially in the South West, which brought severe flooding to Teignmouth, Devon, and Camelford in Cornwall.”
 
All we can learn from this, of course, is not to draw too many conclusions from unusual or extreme weather: it is the longer-term patterns which constitute the climate. Even then, long periods must pass before we can truly ascribe trends. Northern hemisphere springs seem definitely to be coming earlier in recent years, and cold winter weather is tending to start later. We should certainly be prepared to cope with further changes, whatever their cause may be. But focussing on reducing carbon emissions rather than building water distribution grids and strengthening flood defences seems misguided.
 
Empty political gesture of the month

June 15th, for those of you who did not notice, was European Wind Day. To mark the occasion, a second-hand Spanish wind turbine was erected for the week in the middle of the Rond-Point Schuman, in the heart of the EU area of Brussels, courtesy of the European Wind Energy Association. Notwithstanding the costs of shipping this from Spain to Brussels, erecting it and then shipping it back (or scrapping it), the device did not supply energy to anyone. Even if it had been connected, a wind turbine in the heart of a city is unlikely to meet even the 20% or so efficiency typical of rural wind farms. It is rather unlikely that members of the European Commission, looking out from the Berlaymont building, would suddenly have been made aware that wind turbines were available. This, then, was a purely symbolic gesture but, to our eyes, a rather empty one. Seeing a stationary second-hand wind turbine on a city roundabout is unlikely to have furthered the cause of renewable power very much.
 
Public transport

Following a period of consultation, the European Commission is due to publish its green paper on public transport in September, perhaps timed to land on people’s desks after they return from holiday by a range of expensive, crowded or delayed means of transport. This is expected to highlight the importance of good quality transport systems in urban centres, and is likely to call for EU-wide quality standards and availability of structural funds to support modernisation.
 
This is all well and good. A clean, efficient and affordable public transport system is a major plus for any city. But it is unrealistic to expect people to abandon cars, and no combination of carrots and sticks is likely to change this. We all make rational decisions about how to travel and, even in cities, trains, trams or buses do not always provide the optimum answer. For longer journeys, the rationale to use a car is often much more compelling, unless you are lucky enough to be travelling from one city centre to another.
 
In the UK, train travel has increased significantly, to the extent now that the government seems to be discreetly encouraging train operators to raise many fares by far above the rate of inflation. We already have some of the most expensive public transport in the world: to make it even more costly while preaching about reducing car use seems at best cynical, at worst perverse. The EU transport green paper is unlikely to have much effect on this.
 
Air travel: fuel efficiency or noise levels?

There have been reports recently about further improvements to aircraft fuel efficiency. Each new model has become better in this regard, through incremental improvements in the same way as car manufacturers have made significant reductions in fuel consumption. But now EasyJet has unveiled plans for a next generation “Eco-jet” which would use an open rotor jet engine. Originally developed during the 1970s, a time of crisis in the oil supply, they were later abandoned as being too noisy. However, it seems that they have the potential to be as much as 50% more fuel efficient, a gain not to be ignored, whatever the net effect might be on the climate.
 
The problem is that, although aircraft design could ameliorate the noise at ground level, the same could be done with the current generation of engines, to even greater effect. There is, indeed, a real conflict between maximising fuel efficiency and minimising noise. Although sensible compromises will undoubtedly be made, it seems that some hard choice may be needed.