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