Science & Environment

Extreme weather: 'Turbulent times ahead' for UK

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Media captionCruel harvest: Cherie Spriggs from Nyetimber explains why 2012 has been a terrible year for growing grapes in the UK

We're always accused of being obsessed with the weather in the UK - but this year we've had a good excuse.

In 2012, we've swung from droughts to floods, hot to cold.

The impact has been felt far and wide, not least by the UK's burgeoning wine industry.

With over 400 acres of vineyards in Hampshire and Sussex, Nyetimber grows the same variety of grapes that are found in the Champagne region in France.

The company has been working to put English sparkling wine on the map, but this year it hasn't had much to celebrate.

Image caption Much of the UK started 2012 with a drought following an exceptionally dry period

"Nyetimber's [vines] have been planted since 1988, and 2012 is the first year we said there is no way we can make wine," says Cherie Spriggs, a wine-maker at the company.

Torrential rain and cool temperatures meant their grapes were not up to standard.

"It came to early October, and we were evaluating the fruit and tasting it, and we just said this isn't going to happen.

"The quality of the fruit was just not at the level that we needed in order to make sparkling wine at the quality we are striving for."

Cancelling the harvest, she says, felt like a kick in the stomach.

'Erratic excursions'

The culprit for much of the extreme weather that the UK has seen this year is the jet stream.

Usually, this river of air in our upper atmosphere flows in a fairly straight line from the east coast of America, east across the Atlantic.

It fluctuates a little all the time, but this year, it underwent large variations and then got locked in these unusual patterns.

Tim Palmer, professor of climate physics at the University of Oxford, explains: "When the jet stream moves up to the north, and then travels back down to the UK, it brings with it cold air, blizzards, very severe and unpleasant weather from that perspective.

"On the other hand, when the jet stream moves south, then we get these periods of intense flooding, which we have seen through the second part of this year."

But Professor Palmer says that with climate change, the jet stream could become far more variable.

He says: "The question of how it will change is still a very active research problem, and we don't have clear-cut answers yet.

"But I think there is quite a big possibility that what we will see is the jet stream undergoing quite dramatic and erratic excursions."

And the UK's geographical position under the jet stream means that we could see the worst of this.

Prof Palmer explains: "I think it is a bit unwise, and possibly even a bit dangerous, to think that the climate of the UK will just gradually warm and we'll transition to a more balmy southern European climate.

"If the ideas about a more fluctuating jet stream are correct, then in fact what we will be seeing is a climate with many more extremes: both extremes of wetness and flooding on the one hand, and extremes and dryness and possibly even coldness on the other."

Getting prepared

The exact course that the UK's climate will take is still uncertain, and scientists say we need more powerful computers and better climate models to improve how we predict our future weather.

Image caption Later in the year, Castleford in West Yorkshire was one of the many places hit by floods

Despite this, the Environment Agency is starting to prepare for a change in our weather patterns.

Flooding is a particular concern, and the agency has been working to put more early flood warnings and flood defences in place.

Lord Chris Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, says: "If you think back to the major flooding in the summer of 2007, not only were there a large number of properties affected by the flooding, there were also some key bits of infrastructure - electricity substations and water treatment plants, which were serious threatened.

"We've been trying to make sure over the period since then that our infrastructure is better protected."

Other industries, such as agriculture, also need to start planning ahead, says Professor Monique Simmonds from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

In their glasshouses, scientists at Kew are looking at a variety of crops from around the world that could potentially survive a more changeable climate in the UK.

"If you look at other parts of the world where you have droughts, for example, there are a lot of your mints, thymes, rosemarys that actually do quite well under warmer and drier conditions," she says.

Natural solution

But, says Prof Simmonds, it's also worth taking a look closer to home.

"With the UK, I think one of the things we really need to do is to go back and look at some of our old varieties of crops. To go back, look for some traits associated with possible drought tolerance, or other extremes of conditions, and that can be your barleys, your oats, your peas," she explains.

Image caption Nyetimber is hoping that the cancelled harvest will not set them back

"We might have the solutions within those collections."

But finding a plant that can cope with every kind of weather won't be easy.

"It would be difficult to come up with an ideal plant that is able to tolerate drought and then tolerate very, very heavy rain and flooding," she says.

"Out there in nature there is likely to be some kind of solution - the trick is to be able to identify it."

Back at Nyetimber, and Cherie Spriggs hopes the cancelled harvest won't set them back too much.

However, as they get ready for 2013, they are preparing for more turbulent times ahead.

She says: "We often talk about an average year, but in fact I've never seen an average year. It is always different on every single occasion.

"If we try to change everything according to what we have seen this year, Murphy's Law, I will be completely wrong for next year."

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