A few years ago my partner and I were discussing where we would move to next. We had met in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and we had both lived there since starting university in 2007. To this day Newcastle still feels like home and I think it always will but it felt like the right time to experience a new city and be closer to family. My health had stabilised as well as it was ever going to and a familiar feeling of restlessness and eagerness for the unknown had returned to my ailing body. In all of our debates about which city to move to the word ‘beautiful’ had never entered the vernacular and it was far from what I thought of when we talked about Liverpool. But now, as I am sat at a desk overlooking the River Mersey, with the wind surging through the open window and the ominous clouds threatening to discharge its contents over the ever-watchful Liver birds, it is the only word that springs to mind. Storms always leave me with a sense of wonder and expectance. The world feels fresher and untarnished, like the pains of the past have been washed away. I mean that in a literal sense for myself; high temperatures and sweltering humidity cause the levels of fatigue and pain in my body to reach heights that leave me unable to perform even basic tasks, praying for the protection of the cooler nights to arrive quickly. It may seem bewildering to the sun-worshippers out there that there are people in the world who look forward to the cooler months but when the newsreaders and newspapers urge you to look after the more vulnerable sections of society during a heat wave, I implore you to take them seriously, it really can save lives. It terrifies me to think that over the next fifty years the climate of the UK is going to change so much that I will be begging for the current heat wave temperatures; by then 30° will be a cool summer for the UK and temperatures in the high 40s will be occurring. 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have been since 2000 and as the years progress these records will be broken again and again. By 2050, it is predicted that 10,500 people will die from heat-related causes across Europe every year. It is hard to imagine how hospitals and care homes will cope with the inevitable huge influx of people but unless governments around the world take action, drastic action at that, and move towards renewable energy this will happen sooner than any of us can bear to contemplate.
Have you ever spent a lazy afternoon in the sun cloud-spotting and wondered what makes a cloud white and the sky blue? Well, it’s all to do with the refraction of light particles. Do you remember the days of GCSE Physics (I know, a long time ago) when you were given a triangular prism, the little block of glass with a triangular cross-section? When you shone light on the prism the light waves were refracted and a rainbow appeared on the other side. This always struck me as pretty cool (and pretty, too). Well this is exactly how it works in the atmosphere. The visible light from the sun travels through the atmosphere and hits atmospheric particles, each visible colour has differing wavelengths (blue is the shortest and red is the longest), the smaller atmospheric particles scatter the shorter blue wavelengths more efficiently and so the sky appears blue. The large water droplets in clouds scatter all the different wavelengths at a similar rate of efficiency and so the clouds appear white (the combination of all the different colours). During a storm when the water droplets are bigger a cloud can appear grey up close. This is because the light is scattered and mostly absorbed before it can reach the bottom of the cloud. Much of the light is reflected back up and so the sides and tops of clouds appear white, in fact when you are flying above clouds they will always appear white because of this.
I often think clouds are taken for granted. Yes, they might bring rain that dashes your hopes of frolicking in the hayfields (that’s for you, May) or long listless afternoons with a picnic in the park but without them there wouldn’t be life as we know it on this planet. They are remarkable things. They can weigh anywhere from a million pounds to trillions of pounds and can be as tall as 200,000 feet. On average they cover 65% of the world’s atmosphere, play a huge role in regulating the world’s temperature and have both a positive and negative effect on the changing climate. On the one hand, their albedo (their reflectivity power or their whiteness) reflects some of the short-wave radiation that arrives from the sun before it reaches the surface thus ensuring that the world doesn’t heat up too much, and on the other hand they trap some of the long-wave infra-red radiation being reflected by the surface which causes the earth to heat up. Currently, clouds have a net cooling effect on the planet, but there is much debate as to what will happen in the future as the different types of clouds all play their own part. There are over 100 types of clouds but they are divided into 10 distinct categories depending on its shape and height in the sky. It is precisely because of the cloud’s height that the impacts of clouds on global warming are so hard to predict; low down clouds reflect more sunlight and so have a net cooling effect on the temperature, whereas clouds higher in the atmosphere trap more of the outgoing long-wave radiation and so have a net warming effect. Recent research has shown that clouds are moving towards the poles where there is less solar radiation and so less radiation to reflect back to the atmosphere, and they are increasing in height and so more of the long-wave radiation is trapped, thus the rate of warming is increased. There is still much uncertainty surrounding the impact of clouds on climate change but it is clear that they will have a huge impact on the future of our climate; I know that next time I look up to the sky and see the glint of the sun’s rays soaring through the clouds I will be contemplating this fine balance that allows life to flourish.
The storm has reached us now. The myriad numbers of boats are struggling to moor as the might of the winds cause the boats to rock with the swell of the estuary. It invokes memories of countless nights where vertigo would ravage my body, the bed acting as my boat as I pray for the calmer seas of the daylight. This was only ever a brief respite though, the eye of the storm, before the nausea would surge once again and I would lie motionless for hours on end, tears building in my eyes as the unyielding pain in my muscles grew ever greater. As the storm reaches its peak the precariousness of businesses and flats overlooking the Mersey becomes clear. We are on the seventh floor of an apartment building, but also at the top of this particular section and so we are also at risk of flooding. In fact, this flat has flooded in previous tenancies and so we are considering all the necessary precautionary measures as we look towards a future where flooding becomes increasingly more likely. 6 of the 7 wettest years on record have occurred since the start of the millennium. Currently more than 1 in 6 homes in the UK (approximately 5 million) are now considered to be at risk of flooding. The cost of flooding currently stands at £340 million but will increase to £620 million by 2050 when it is estimated that 1.3 million houses will be at high risk of flooding. Coastlines will change as sea levels continue to rise; they have risen around 8 inches in the last century but the rate in the last 2 decades is nearly double that of the last century and it has been predicted that all of Britain’s sandy beaches may be washed away within the next 100 years. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by 30% and the amount of CO2 absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by around 2 billion tonnes per year. CO2 levels hit 400 parts per million (ppm) in March 2015 which was last breached 3 million years ago during the Pliocene epoch. If the extreme impacts of climate change are to be avoided then we have to limit this to 450ppm by 2100 and yet the current rate of CO2 growth is 3ppm per year.
I realise I have thrown a lot of facts at you but sometimes it is the only way to emphasise the terrifying and urgent threat we face. As the temperature and humidity rise and flooding becomes an ever-more likely occurrence across the world, so too does the risk of tropical disease being transmitted by mosquitoes, which will be able to survive further afield. In 2015 there were approximately 212 million cases of malaria with an estimated 429,000 deaths, and that is just one of the diseases mosquitoes carry. By 2030-2050 it has been predicted that an extra 250,000 people will die every year from climate-related diseases. What these facts and figures fail to show, however, are the personal stories behind the diseases. I am one of those people who have been infected with malaria and whose life has been devastated by the impacts of it ever since. I had dreamed of travelling to East Africa ever since I first watched Out of Africa as a child. I can still feel the goose bumps erupt over my arms when I think of the first time I watched the plane fly over the great plains of the Massai Mara. I made it my life’s aim to see the beauty of East Africa for myself and I succeeded. I dream about it from time to time- when I close my eyes I am still there, overlooking the Ngorongoro crater with the pink haze of the flocks of flamingos in the distance and I wake up with tears in my eyes. I know I will never drive along the plains of the Serengeti or wake up to the early morning mist surrounding Kilimanjaro again and even travelling around the UK is extremely difficult but I have accepted my fate. And now, as the pain of the last ten years slices through my muscles and joints, my only aim is to do everything in my power to ensure other people don’t have to accept this same fate. We have to do anything and everything possible to mitigate the impacts of climate change for future generations and so I urge you to research climate change, to recycle, take public transport, use less water and above all write to your MPs and ensure they don’t shirk their responsibilities when it comes to this greatest of all threats to our world. Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa once wrote:
“Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”
Perhaps that is the curse of the modern age- we can no longer claim ignorance of the effects of our actions on the future; we know all too well what is coming and yet we are failing to respond to it at a quick enough rate. We have entered the Anthropocene, and a sixth mass extinction is currently underway with billions of local wildlife populations lost to human over-population. Every week there is another tragedy occurring and yet there are still so many influential people who are choosing not to put the links together. Maybe they too do not want to see too far down the road, and if I’m honest, I can understand it. You do not even have to walk a mile down that metaphorical road to see death, extinction and suffering. The irony is though that if we collectively look into that void and stand face to face against the oncoming storm and choose to act now then we can prevent so much of that suffering. I don’t know about you guys, but that seems like a fight that I want to be a part of.
(If anyone would like a list of my references then please send a message and I can post them).