Friday 24 February 2017

Climate Change and You: Living on the edge

Global warming used to be part of an apocalyptic future. But now there are signs it is already happening with more homes falling into the sea, streets under water and farmers stranded. Should we bow to the inevitable - or can we adapt our lives to survive this new era of freakish weather patterns? Kim Bielenberg reports

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Teetering on the brink: Roddy Hickson at his abandoned home (right) overlooking Donaghmore beach in Co Wexford
Teetering on the brink: Roddy Hickson at his abandoned home (right) overlooking Donaghmore beach in Co Wexford
Concern: Environmental engineer Gerry Forde

When Roddy Hickson bought his seaside home in Co Wexford almost four decades ago, it had an idyllic 20-metre garden leading down to the shoreline.

Roddy and his wife Maureen could stare out over the sandy beach at Donaghmore from their deck without a care in the world. But then, last winter, this seaside idyll turned into a storm-lashed nightmare for the Hicksons.

As a storm raged across this coastline last New Year's Eve, Roddy and Maureen could feel the ground shifting beneath them, and a crack appeared, as if they were caught in an earthquake.

The garden that they had once cherished was tumbling into the sea.

"It was quite terrifying," says Roddy. "The sea washed in at the bank at the bottom of the garden, and once it did the whole garden began to slip away."

The house is now left abandoned, teetering on the edge of a cliff, with the foundations hanging over - and it looks like it could all come crashing down in a gust of wind.

Roddy Hickson's abandoned home overlooking Donaghmore beach in Co Wexford
Roddy Hickson's abandoned home overlooking Donaghmore beach in Co Wexford

After a second storm blew up a few days after the first one, the Hicksons had to move out of their home, and other houses along the shoreline have been given up to the elements.

Like many others who have been deeply affected by extreme weather events in Ireland, Roddy Hickson believes he is a victim of global warming and the man-made surge in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Roddy, a former restaurateur who has just written a novel, tells Review plainly: "It's the price we are paying for the lifestyles we lead.

"Living here, I watched the sea and I could see what was happening."

As recently as a decade ago we tended to believe climate change was something that would be far away in the distant future, envisaged only by scaremongering boffins.

There were jocular comments that it could never happen in Ireland, and if it did, where was the harm in a bit of warming?

In some scenarios, there were hopes that wine could be produced in Ireland, and as we sampled Kildare cabernet we could bask in prolonged sunshine.

Global warming may have seemed far away in the future, but there is growing evidence that it is happening in the here and now - and the effects are not as benign as we might have hoped.

Lahinch in Co Clare battered by 130kmh storms in 2014.
Lahinch in Co Clare battered by 130kmh storms in 2014.

Last winter, the country was lashed by storms with Eva, Desmond and Frank causing havoc in December. It was also one of the warmest Decembers on record as well as the wettest in many areas.

Floods of biblical proportions covered vast tracts of land and swamped towns, from Cork across the Midlands and West, and up to Donegal. Climate change enables farmers to grow grass for longer periods, but in many recent winters, cattle have had to be taken inside under imminent threat of drowning as water covered tens of thousands of acres.

Dr Kieran Hickey, climatologist at University College Cork, says: "We are experiencing lots of extremes of weather. Each extreme event would not be worrying, but the fact that we are getting them almost every year is a much bigger concern.

"Of course we have had stormy winters in the past and the occasional drought, but we didn't tend to get them one after the other."

In his book Five Minutes to Midnight: Ireland and Climate Change, Dr Hickey paints a picture of how the country will be transformed.

There is the familiar picture of warmer, wetter winters with more deadly storms, flooded streets and sodden fields.

A less publicised part of the climate models envisaged for the future are scorching summers, parched lawns, water rationing and even escalating rates of skin cancer.

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"The character of our cities will change. So will the look and feel of the countryside around them," Dr Hickey predicts.

"Native plants and animals will be lost. Salmon will disappear from our rivers, cod from our seas and potatoes from our fields.

"Exotic new crops and species will replace them. Beaches, farms and golf links will be swept away as large swathes of the coastline are redrawn.

"In time, beleaguered and uninsurable seaside villages, power stations and even city centres may have to be abandoned."

As we see with the Hicksons in Donaghmore, parts of Wexford are already seeing signs of this future, with homes abandoned as the sea levels rise.

Gerry Forde, senior environmental engineer at Wexford County Council, says: "There has always been coastal erosion in Wexford but we believe it is now happening at a much faster rate as a result of climate change and the increasing frequency of storms."

In some parts of Wexford, the effects of climate change have already sliced up to 100 metres off the shoreline.

Last winter in Kilpatrick, close to the Wicklow border, the road was washed away, cutting off access to some local homes.

The sea moved inland by 11.5 metres in just a few weeks. The coast has eroded to levels that were originally anticipated for 2025. One local woman, who has no road access to her home, told me how she had to carry five-litre drums of heating oil to fill her tank, and transport supplies in a wheelbarrow.

Like many other local authorities, Wexford County Council will have to make difficult choices about what pieces of land it will choose to save.

Which homes will be rescued, and which ones will be allowed to crumble, like the Hicksons' house, into the sea.

Big towns and major public roads can be protected by rock armour costing up to €3,000 per metre, but some areas are being more or less abandoned because the cost of coastal fortifications everywhere is prohibitive.

In an era of climate change, these tricky decisions on what to save will become more pressing, not only along coastlines but in areas that are regularly flooded.

Will homeowners in small townlands who are inundated regularly simply be encouraged to move?

As one flooding consultant put it: "If you have a handful of houses that are being flooded regularly - and they are worth a total of €1m, do you spend €10m on a flood-relief scheme for the area. That wouldn't make sense."

UCC's Kieran Hickey says: "The authorities will protect cities, major roads and key infrastructure. Unfortunately for farmers, they are always at the bottom of the list."

The scientific jury may have delivered its verdict on climate change, giving the sceptics the status of flat earthers, but there is still a degree of scepticism, as enunciated by Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae, who said: "God above is in charge of the weather and... we here can't do anything about it."

A recent survey by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland showed that only 49pc of Irish people believe climate change is a serious problem.

It is striking, however, that one rarely hears any scepticism about climate change among those who are directly affected. To those of us lucky to be on high ground, the threat is remote, but those on floodplains live with the fear.

Gillian Powell runs a Montessori school next to her home in Bandon, Co Cork and has been engulfed by floods three times since 2009, including twice last winter. One flood in her home was 6ft deep.

"I believe we should plan strategically for climate change, because the data shows that there will be a 40pc increase in these floods."

She says flooding has a devastating psychological effect, and she is afraid of what might happen this winter.

"It's the fear that gets you. You can't really relax when the weather is bad, and I don't want to go away in the winter in case it happens."

Worried that works on a flood-relief scheme in Bandon would be delayed by bureaucracy, Gillian spearheaded a campaign. Together with other businesses, she threatened to withhold rates unless the work started this summer. The scheme has now started.

Gillian says life should continue in Ireland's historic river settlements in an era of climate change, but it is important not to make the situation worse.

"I welcome the fact that hedgerows are being encouraged again. The ­combination of faster run-off from farms and more concrete have turned the Bandon River into a fast-flowing river."

Gillian says the planting of oak trees and willow banks along the river should help to alleviate some of the effects.

Dr Hickey of UCC says in many areas, old infrastructure such as water treatment plants, bridges and drains are unable to cope with the large volumes of water tipped down in storms.

According to Dr Hickey, excessive rainfall in 2007 contributed to the Cryptospiridium contamination of water in Galway because old infrastructure was not designed to withstand the extreme weather events. The treatment plant in Galway has since been upgraded.

With rising sea levels, Dr Hickey expects salt water to get into coastal aquifers and this will affect group water schemes. So much of our old infrastructure seems ill suited to the needs of climate change.

Dr Barry O'Dwyer, climate ­adaptation scientist at UCC, says many bridges around the country are over 100 years old, and he is concerned about increases in water flow under them.

"We know very little about what's underneath them in terms of the foundations. There is already evidence of landslides occurring as a result of extreme precipitation events and we have to look at that," says Dr O'Dwyer.

"When we build buildings, we build them with 100-year lifespans. We're not factoring in projected changes in temperature, driving wind and rain."

Climate change is affecting us in all sorts of ways that may appear minor, but could prove costly.

"With local authorities, increased grass growth means they have to cut the grass year round which has huge costs in terms of fuel, vehicles and people. It's the smaller costs which will add up," says Dr O'Dwyer.

While there has been much attention on flooding and storms, there are also many adjustments that will be required as a result of higher summer temperatures.

Dr O'Dwyer says there are already issues about heat making life uncomfortable in old buildings such as hospitals and nursing homes. Air conditioning is one solution, but a massive rise in its use could affect our greenhouse-gas emissions - and make matters worse.

Until now, the powers-that-be have tended to respond to the latest extreme weather event rather than plan long term for the future.

It may not be much comfort to those such as the Hicksons in Wexford, who were forced out of their homes, but at least last winter's floods have been a wake-up call. When it comes to climate change, we are already past the midnight hour.

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