On the 6th January, 1839, 175 years ago, Co Monaghan and the rest of Ireland experienced a hurricane. The 1993 book ‘The Big Wind’ by Peter Carr describes in detail the devastation caused. The Northern Standard carried reports in its first edition which was just published just four days later. Our recent storms have not been quite as severe as the one in 1839. Nevertheless it has focused our attention on the type of weather that climate scientists are predicting that we will experience in the coming years.
The ‘big wind’ of 1839 resulted in homes, shops and winter stores on farms being destroyed and several hundred people losing their lives. In Dublin alone, nearly a quarter of houses were damaged, and 42 ships were wrecked. Peter Carr describes how poor people “ended up on the roads, the vault of heaven their only roof”. Jonathan A Smyth in his website cavanliving.ie quotes reports from the Anglo Celt and Northern Standard. In one such report concerning Glaslough it was stated that “eight houses were burned to the ground and their inhabitants driven houseless into the streets”. This event was so unprecedented and had such catastrophic consequences that ‘Oíche na Gaoithe Móire’ (the ‘Night of the Big Wind’) became embedded in Irish folklore.
In the 175 years since this event, catastrophic storms – thankfully – have been an infrequent phenomenon in Ireland, However extreme weather events both globally and in Ireland seem to be more common in recent years and many think that there is a link with global warming caused by high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. It was in fact an Irish scientist called John Tyndall, who was one of the first scientists to identify the critical role of greenhouse gases in maintaining the earth’s temperature in his breakthrough scientific paper which was published over 150 years ago.
Last September the scientific intergovernmental body known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released its 5th assessment report reviewing the latest climate science. This is the most comprehensive, authoritative and scrutinised report on climate change ever written. It was prepared by over 800 scientific experts from all over the world, and its findings have been arrived at by exhaustive review processes. What it shows is that scientists are now as positive that climate change is real and caused by humans as they are that smoking causes cancer.
For Monaghan it is predicted that we will have hotter, drier and calmer summers but milder, wetter and windier winters. Co Monaghan is likely to have similar changes to what Northern Ireland will experience if the world’s high level of greenhouse gas emissions continue at present levels. It is suggested that by 2080 there will be a 5.2ºC increase in our average summer temperature and a 3ºC increase in average winter temperatures with a major decline in the number of frost days. There is likely to be a 20 per cent increase in winter rainfall and an 18 per cent reduction in summer rainfall. Wind speeds could be about 10 per cent stronger in winter on average by mid-century but about 15 per cent lighter in summer.
In Ireland, we often downplay the risks from climate change because we enjoy a temperate climate. We are a small island nation, and we feel we won’t be directly affected; however the truth is that climate change – if unchecked – will damage global environment as well as our economy and quality of life. In Co Monaghan it will be likely that we will have more flooding in winter and more droughts in summer, so we will have to plan for such a situation.
The phenomenon of ‘climate refugees’ will grow, and – with our temperate climate – Ireland is likely to be viewed as a safe haven. So, in addition to the impact on our economy of climate change disruption in other parts of the world, we could also be looking at unprecedented levels of migration, and at supporting a larger population here.
NUI Maynooth is home to the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units (ICARUS) which is a leading centre for climate change research in Ireland. Dr Stephan Flood of ICARUS is the author of a study into the Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change to Irish Agriculture to be in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. There will be were some opportunities for Irish farmers arising from climate change as wheat and beet yields are set to increase significantly. However the most significant climate change impacts on Irish agriculture relate to pests and diseases, crop yields, flooding, plant and animal stress factors, drought effects and the ability to provide sufficient resources for animals during extreme events.
But the good news is that we can act now to make sure climate doesn’t happen at the pace and extent predicted. Governments throughout the world must urgently implement plans to reduce emissions, encourage clean energy and discourage the use of fossil fuels. In Ireland, the Government has published the Heads of a new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. In advancing this legislation, it is important to ensure there is an effective strategy for emissions reductions and provision for independent oversight and monitoring of progress.