In recent months, the UK temperature has risen to over 40 degrees Celsius for the first time, and we have seen fires across the region from Essex to Norfolk. But even as previous heat records were smashed, there were some who claimed – including in parliament – it was not as bad as 1976. Their argument was, amongst other things, that we were not in a drought.
However, earlier this month it became official that we are.
Comparing 1976 to 2022
“1976” has become a form of short-hand for ‘long hot summer’. But with the median age of the population of England being 40.5 years, it means that just over half has no living memory of it. As a result, it has become anecdotal and open to ‘rose tinted’ revision.
Writing in the Guardian, climate scientist Ella Gilbert painstakingly set about lifting the veil from the ‘legend’ of ’76, and compared it with the undeniable, if inconvenient, truths of 2022.
1976 was a hot summer but it was also the end of a long period of below average rainfall. This had reduced the amount of water in the reservoirs and in the water table before the summer had even begun. It was this shortage of resources that prompted the Government to introduce the ‘Drought Act’ to manage water resources with the use of draconian restrictions.
A major difference is the winter of 2021/22 has seen comparable rainfall to previous years. Yet we have still ended up in drought with the highest temperature being over four degrees celsius warmer than the high in 1976. Europe too has had its share of fires, from Portugal to France, Germany to Spain, fields, forests and properties have burned. People have fled and tragically, some have lost their lives.
Often overlooked, as people fondly recall the long ’76 summer heatwave, was that there was a 20% increase in year on year ‘excess’ deaths of mostly the elderly. This amounted 3,676 in the 16-day heatwave window.
Similarly in 2022, the NHS, still reeling from the pandemic, has faced extra demands on Accident and Emergency services due to heat-related illness.
What have the impacts been so far in East Anglia?
In addition to the fires and excessive temperatures, there are genuine concerns for the repercussions of low rainfall and disruption to irrigation for food production, including fruit, and for winter vegetable crops such as potatoes.
A spokesperson for Anglian Water said: “We operate in the driest region in the country, so conserving water and protecting against drought is what we do every day. Currently our reservoir levels are stable, at around 80% full. Our underground aquifers are in reasonable shape too, at around average or just below average for the time of year.”
The next few months
While this is good news, it’s hard to know what autumn and winter will look like, as long term predictions for weather forecasting are always problematic. Almanacs published in August could claim to predict the weather systems will act in a way that is beneficial for the UK and East Anglia, with a very wet, snowy winter. But such a prediction is little more than a guess.
More than a few weeks out, meteorology becomes an inexact science with ultra-long-range forecasting being notoriously tricky. With that in mind, at present, working on predictions of how cyclical weather patterns will emerge, the models show that whilst there will be some cold fronts coming down into Europe with even some snow, Europe could well be facing a drier winter that normal.
Back to Anglian Water, they do have concerns if the lack of rainfall persists. “If this coming winter is as dry as last year, we will be in a much more serious position come spring.”
Aquifers, or “ground water”, are traditionally replenished by long periods of rain, which in the UK are normally associated with the autumn or winter months.
If restrictions were imposed in East Anglia as they have been elsewhere, irrigating crops becomes a serious issue, and as a result 2023 will be even more problematic for the agriculture industry and the local businesses that support them.
We don’t need an almanac to tell us that climate change will have a profound effect on our weather patterns as the Earth heats up. The debate should not be ‘is 2022 worse than 1976?’ it should be ‘how do we stop becoming the dust bowl of 1930’s America?’