Blue emperor dragonfly by Dr Allan Brandon

The impact of climate change

Last updated: 17 November 2009

Meet a stranger and the topic of conversation often turns to the weather. It has an immediate bearing on how we feel, what we wear and what we do but we quickly forget about what it was like last week.

Climate, on the other hand, is much harder to grasp, because it's about long-term weather patterns. Surely the odd degree rise in temperature isn't going to make that much difference? It does though, and there's an abundance of evidence to prove it, in the natural world.

Dragonflies

These insects do best in the tropics, as they prefer warm conditions but they're a mobile species which can respond quickly to changes in average temperature.

The blue emperor dragonfly had a Southerly distribution in Wales until very recently. The first sighting in the North, at a small pond near Wrexham, came in 2002.

Within five years it was being recorded, with positive proof of breeding, at a number of localities across North-East Wales.

The migrant hawker and the black-tailed skimmer tell a similar story of rapid Northerly spread, colonising new territory as far North and West as Anglesey.

Alpine plants

In contrast, several arctic-alpine plants are lodged on Welsh mountain tops, with nowhere to go as the climate warms up.

One of the most emblematic of these is the Snowdon Lily, discovered by the great Welsh botanist Edward Llwyd more than three centuries ago in the mountains of Snowdonia.

If this delightful little lily fails to cope with a warming climate, then Wales will lose a small part of its history and identity, and Britain's flora will be that much poorer.

Snowdon

Data on the climate and changing wildlife of Snowdon has been collected over the past fifteen years, as part of an Environmental Change Network of sites.

Minimum air temperatures have risen and rainfall has increased, pushing Snowdon towards a more Oceanic climate.

Frogs are spawning earlier, and changes are affecting the populations. Dates and activities of butterflies and moths, beetles, birds and bats are all being gathered to find out what impact climate change is having on Snowdon's wildlife.

Coed Cadw - The Woodland Trust has been harnessing the enthusiasm of members and volunteers to collect this kind of information, and has campaigned to move conservation efforts away from focussing on isolated sites.

The Trust has argued the case for enlarging, buffering and linking together the most important wildlife sites to provide wildlife with the chance to adapt to a changing climate.

Lower plants

Lichens, mosses and liverworts are hugely over represented in Wales, because the climate here is ideal for these ingenious and life-building plants.

About a tenth of the world's lichen species are found here, 1300 species in a country covering only a fraction of one per cent of the Earth's surface.

There are also 780 mosses and liverworts. These 'lower plants' will be in the firing line when it comes to a changing climate, especially the many species which lie at the extreme Southerly limit of their range in Wales.

Marine life

Fish may also be responding to warmer waters by shifting their distribution Northward. Examples being the trigger fish and red mullet; and perhaps the blue runner caught by an angler off Mumbles pier.

The same applies to a host of marine organisms. Seaweeds are harvested for culinary and medicinal uses, as gelling agents, fertilizer, cosmetic products and in the production of paper and textiles.

Changes in the distribution and abundance of seaweeds may be significant economically. The impact of climate change on wildlife will depend on how smart our human response is.

Coastal development

With most of the population living near Wales' 1200 km of coast, and climate change possibly adding to the development pressures on the coast if it creates a 'Welsh riviera' - the way we manage our coast will have huge implications for the abundance of wildlife along the coastal fringe.

Approaches which use hard engineering solutions to defeat natural processes will only stoke up climate change, and are doomed to fail.

Recently the Environment Agency has called for a more sophisticated approach, to allow some local readjustment of the coastline.

Farming methods

Climate change is an all-pervasive issue which crops up time and again.

What we grow in Wales, how we do it and use it will define how 'environmentally friendly' farming and land management become in the face of a changing climate.

If we allow space for nature, adopt sympathetic ways to manage land, like organic farming, and grow a greater range of crops for our own home market, we can mitigate at least some of the negative effects of climate change.

As Editor of Natur Cymru - Nature of Wales magazine, I have drawn most of this information from past editions of the magazine.

James Robertson - Editor - Natur Cymru magazine


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