Drought, floods, dying fish – a river of climate warnings

THIS summer has been one of many alarm bells. One was there in what my family and I saw up north, as we travelled on a holiday around Scotland around a week ago, and noticed how strikingly low the waters were, rivers and lochs with vast tracts of dried-out banks exposed. There has, of course, been rain since. A week can bring a lot of weather – amber alerts, some rain, floods even in places. But still the problem some of Scotland faces this summer is water scarcity.

Last week SEPA declared that the Wigtownshire area of Galloway, Helmsdale, Naver and the Wick area of Caithness were affected by significant scarcity. This followed an April which saw less than a third of the usual rainfall across the south of Scotland and a June which saw less than half across the whole of the country.

No need to fuss, we might think – those water supplies will soon fill up again. But water scarcity isn’t just a problem for us, who like to drink it, wash in it and do all manner of things with it– it’s also a problem for those that live in it, particularly when combined with heat. On Twitter last week, images were shared of fish dead from heat and deoxygenation in the Black Cart.

Meanwhile, in California, we can see the impact of the shocking extreme temperatures experienced this summer, following the heat dome – baby Atlantic salmon dying, and whole runs of the endangered species under threat. The same heat wave, it’s been estimated, caused the death of over a billion sea creatures.

That loss might seem distant, but similar impacts are happening here – even if our temperatures have not been so extraordinarily high as they have been in the west of North America. It was reported recently that water levels in the River Ericht at Blairgowrie were too low to allow the salmon to move and the fish are becoming trapped in shallow pockets, with a lack of oxygen – and that a generation of fish could be killed because of drought.

Climate change is knocking at our door. It is no longer a concept or some distant experience of other lands, of those other people who we hear asking why we don’t do more to mitigate the climate crisis. We think of this land as wet and mild, but that, increasingly, is not its story. This year has seen more and more experts talk about “extreme weather patterns”. Following the publication of the State of the UK Climate 2020 report last week, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, Professor Liz Bentley, predicted that if warming continues by another 0.3C, heatwaves would become more intense, and we would be “likely to see 40C in the UK although we have never seen those kinds of temperatures.”

The flooding in Germany should be a warning to us too. “Extreme weather”, some of it caused by a slowing and wobbling of the jet stream, has exceeded predictions, partly because while we have good modelling for baseline warming, the modelling of this planetary flow is less accurate.

This extreme weather of the past few months ought to be a prompt to try harder. As should the news last week, that a study had found that Australia’s wildfires had a greater impact on the planet’s climate than the reduction in emissions. Try harder should be written in red ink everywhere, sending us off to rewrite the way our human world works, but in fact all too often that isn’t what happens. All too often alarm slips into doomism, helplessness and inertia – and doomism is what we can least afford.

For, even the most alarmist of reports, outlining the threat of civilisation collapse, show us that we are still in a significant window of hope – one which we cannot afford to allow to slide by. Most of us now believe we should attempt to hit net zero targets. Yet, as I look out and see the low rivers, read of record temperatures around the world, it feels that change in the human fabric, in how we operate, is only edging forward.

Try harder should be the message for the Scottish government, and every government, in the run up to COP26, and also for all individuals with wealth and means. That’s the message from the river – try harder, try faster.


READ MORE: Deadly temperatures. The warnings telling us to climate-proof

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