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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496