Fair Isle's uncertain future

What impact will climate change have on Fair Isle? Truth is, no-one really knows

I have just begun reading George Monbiot’s book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning and am feeling rather miserable.

The optimistic, inspirational stuff will, I’m sure, come later in the book, but at the moment I’m still on Chapter One, and it’s just depressing. The world is getting hotter, the ice caps are melting, the water is rising, ecosystems are collapsing, crops will fail, people are going to starve, and frankly it’s all going to get much worse. Soon.

Up here in the North Atlantic we are extremely vulnerable to climatic changes, and global warming has already begun to have a serious effect on our weather, as well as on the environment around us. Unlike in many other parts of the world, however, where the effects of warming can be easily foreseen – drought, melting ice, etc. – here in Shetland the changes are worryingly unpredictable.

Ours is a relatively mild and stable climate. At 60° north, we are on the same latitude as Alaska and southern Greenland, but are considerably warmer through most of the year. This is, in large part, due to the effect of the Gulf Stream, which brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico up to the most northerly parts of Europe. It helps keep the icebergs away from Lerwick harbour, let’s put it like that.

No-one is quite sure what the effect of global warming will be on the Gulf Stream. Some scientists predict a decrease in the circulation of water in the Atlantic, which could actually bring a dramatic cooling effect in the north. Most, however, are just not sure. It is, at the moment at least, a case of wait and see.

Here in Fair Isle we have our very own weatherman, Dave Wheeler, who has been providing the Met Office with hourly observations from the weather station on the island since 1974. In that time, Dave has witnessed a fairly steady increase in temperatures.

"In the last 30-plus years, the number of days with snow lying at 0900 hours between December and February has fallen by over 40 per cent. At the same time, the number of days on which snow or sleet was observed to have fallen (at any time during the day or night) has dropped by 25 per cent.

"Sea temperatures also continue to rise, most notably during the summer months, with a one to two degree Celsius rise over 30 years."

This upward trend in temperatures has been accompanied, in winter, by an increase in storm frequency and wind strength. In summer, it has meant more fog.

These changes, Dave says, have also brought a greater level of variability in the weather. Prolonged periods of cold weather are far less common than three decades ago, and summers too are increasingly unpredictable.

"An analysis of the daily mean temperatures appears to show that, during recent years, temperatures fluctuate (on a time scale of days to a week or so) far more widely than they did 20 to 30 years ago. I believe our climate is becoming even more variable than it was."

Small changes, particularly in sea temperatures, can have a huge impact on the ecosystem in the North Atlantic. Already certain types of plankton are moving north in order to escape the warming water. Some fish species are also doing the same. This, in turn, is affecting the success of breeding seabird species.

The long term future for the climate here at 60° north may be uncertain, but the short term future is not: in a few minutes I am going to pick up George Monbiot’s book again. I really need to get beyond chapter one.

Photos by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad