Nature Studies

Dorset and climate change are not terms which go naturally together, are they? To be in Thomas Hardy’s lovely county in 2024 is not to experience what global warming truly is, at least for now. Yet it seems to me, to live in this landscape which is still so blessedly green and pastoral, and write about it, as I am doing, is not a reason to stick one’s head in the sand, and ignore the most pressing issue of our age—easy though that would be to do.
So last month, trying to link the two—the county and the climate phenomenon—I wrote here about the disappearance of snow from the Dorset countryside, which is probably one of the first signs in our region of the great changes which are coming to the whole world. Not an easy one to notice, the loss of snow, because we’re talking about an absence, and an absence is by its nature always harder to register than a presence, but it’s visible none the less, if you look properly. And loth though I am to write on the same subject twice running, I want to return to it here, for a couple of reasons.
The first is, in the last month, the full global temperature record has been published for the year 2023, and it makes for startling reading. You may have glanced at the headlines in the second week of January saying that it was the warmest year ever recorded for the world. You may not have looked at the margin by which the record was broken. According to the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, 2023 was 1.45 degrees Celsius hotter than the “pre-industrial” level, which is the global average air temperature measured from 1850 to 1900, before climate change had begun. This figure is fast approaching the 1.5 degrees of global warming which is widely regarded as a danger level which the world must not surpass; but not only that. It was 0.16 degrees above the previous hottest year, 2016, which, measured across the whole world, is the most enormous jump.
Down here in south-western England we could not really appreciate the scale of this, because our own high summer was damp and cool. But they could in China, where on July 16 a remote township in Xinjiang recorded the country’s highest-ever temperature, a scarcely-believable 52.2 degrees Celsius (or 125.9 Fahrenheit), itself up from the previous record set only in 2015 of 50.3 C (or 122.5 F)—another enormous leap. And if south-west England was cool, the south-western region of the United States most assuredly was not. In July in Phoenix, Arizona, for a record 31 successive days the temperature exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit, or 43.3 degrees Celsius (perhaps the older scale which Americans still use for their air temperature is here even more expressive). For a month the principal business of the 1.6m citizens of Phoenix was to survive the heat, which got up to 118 F (47.7C), leading the local paper, the Arizona Republic, to cry out: WILL THE INFERNO NEVER END? Or take wildfires, which were blazing around the world. You may have seen reports about the fires on the Greek island of Rhodes, which forced the evacuation of thousands of tourists in July, or the fires on the Hawaian island of Maui, which in August destroyed the town of Lahaina and killed 100 people; but you probably didn’t follow the saga of the record forest fires in Canada, which began in March and were still burning in October, and by then had consumed 185,000 square kilometres of trees—an area three-quarters the size of the United Kingdom.
The huge, incredible heat and its consequences were not something we could easily register in our own, temperate corner of the world in 2023, because July and August were something of a washout; by September our lawns were still green. And I am starting to think of this as the Dorset Disconnect: it is easy to observe, and even write about, the beloved natural world of Hardy’s Wessex, at least for now, without taking cognisance of the terrible threat which climate change represents. And yet—and this is my second reason for coming back to the subject—the signs are there, if you know where to look.
Start with temperatures. July and August were cool in the UK, but we had a very warm June—it was our hottest June on record—and I vividly remember having dinner outside on June 9, in our garden in the village, and sitting there until after it was dark, with the bats flitting around, and thinking, I have never, ever done this before in the first half of June. And on June 12, which was my birthday, the temperature reached 28 degrees C (82 degrees F) and I similarly thought, it has never been this hot on my birthday before. Although of course, that’s just anecdote, and not statistical proof of anything.
Subtler, but perhaps more decisive signs can be found with wildlife, with declines of some butterfly and bird species (such as the willow warbler) for which climate change is probably responsible; but perhaps the most distinctive sign of approaching climate change in Dorset is in water: heavier rainfall, increased flooding. A warming atmosphere holds more moisture, and a very consistent prediction for the consequences of global warming in Britain has always been that downpours will be more intense—and so it is proving. On January 5 the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology revealed that July – December 2023 was the wettest such period in Britain since records began in 1890.
It has been instructive this winter to watch Dorset’s major rivers, the Stour, the Frome and the Piddle, with many smaller streams, all burst their banks at various times, and to see the front page of the Dorset Echo on December 27 devoted to assurances from the consortium planning to build 3,500 new homes to the north of Dorchester, that the new houses would not be affected by flooding, despite the fact that some of the planned area of pedestrian access to the site was at that moment under water from the overflowing Frome; and the Old Sherborne Road was closed.
There will be more of this—a lot more. If the disappearance of snow in the county represents a new absence, the coming of floodwater will be very much a new presence in places not used to it; it will be a new reality. So although there may well be a Dorset Disconnect at the moment, and you can look at the environment in our lovely county, even look at it closely and write about it, without even thinking about climate change, that is not a situation that is going to last forever. The warming world is coming for Hardy’s Wessex, just as it is coming for everywhere else.