Tuesday 10 December 2019

Forget floods as drought set to be next climate disaster

People are caught in a heavy downpour in Westport, Co Mayo yesterday Photo: Paul Meale
People are caught in a heavy downpour in Westport, Co Mayo yesterday Photo: Paul Meale
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Ireland is "remarkably" prone to droughts and there is a "high likelihood they will occur again", despite the storms and extreme rainfall experienced in recent years.

Recently uncovered weather records dating to the beginning of the 19th century show the country was decimated by drought on four occasions in the 1800s, and in the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and 1970s.

The situation became so bad that the Bishop of Meath placed newspaper notices in 1887 asking the faithful to pray for rain.

Dr Conor Murphy, from the Department of Geography at Maynooth University, said the last 40 years had been "unusual" due to the absence of persistent droughts, which have been a frequent occurrence over the last 200 years.

The historical records demonstrate that Ireland was subject to persistent, multi-season drought episodes, and a team is currently working on a detailed drought catalogue for Ireland stretching back to the mid-1700s to map the extent of droughts and trace their impacts.

In 1893, Dublin experienced a drought and water crisis when the Vartry supply failed to meet demand.

Dr Murphy said a key question which arises today is how contemporary Dublin would cope if climate history were to repeat itself.

"When it comes to planning around extreme weather conditions, to predict the future you must understand the past," Dr Murphy said.

"Last winter saw significant flooding, which caused severe damage to homes and businesses across the country. We have recently derived continuous records of storminess and flooding dating back to 1871, and what is very significant is, although we are in a notable flood-rich period, it is not unprecedented since the records began."

Prior to 1880, meteorologists in Ireland were not a unified professional body but a disparate group of amateur "gentlemen" scientists.

With weather instrumentation becoming widely available in the mid-19th century, many amateurs began keeping detailed ledgers which have proven to be treasure troves for modern climate scientists. Head of Climatology and Observations at Met Éireann, Séamus Walsh, said funding was needed "urgently" to allow the data be digitised which would help track signals of climate change.

"You can compare it to a map - to know where you are going you need to know where you are. These long records are vital to help place recent extreme events in context, and allow us to track emerging climate change signals," he said.

The findings will be discussed at the 9th ACRE Historical Weather and Climate Data Forum at Maynooth today.

Irish Independent

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