Keeping the Emerald Isle Green
In "Easter, 1916," the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote of the moment that sparked the Irish Revolution: "All is changed, changed utterly." In a time of relative peace in Ireland, a new foe has arisen that threatens to change the face of Ireland. This new enemy is global warming.
Changing global temperatures are slowly altering the landscape, flora and fauna, precipitation patterns, flooding patterns, and weather extremes of the island. These effects--coupled with Ireland’s recent economic growth and increasing energy demands--threaten the culture and lifestyle of Ireland’s citizens.
Temperatures in Ireland are already rising and the risk is that over time, the Emerald Isle’s greens will turn to brown. Ireland’s fabled soft rains will become strong downpours in the North and West, leading to considerable erosion.
Bog bursts – when great slabs of peat careen down a slope like a California mudslide – will be more common. The potato, a staple food that has its place in another time of Irish crisis, could be a threatened crop once again. Ireland’s lakes and streams – renowned for salmon and sea trout – will be depleted and suffer along with the tourism industry which depends upon them.
Over the last century Ireland's average temperature increased more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Since 1980, temperatures have increased about 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, a rate much faster than the global average. Climate scientists predict temperatures will increase 1.8 to 2.7degrees Fahrenheit in Ireland by 2021 - 2060 relative to the baseline period 1961 - 2000. While increases in temperature may initially present opportunities for improvements in agricultural productivity, the rate of increase may be too fast paced for Ireland's iconic landscape to adjust.
The average temperature increases mask the likely larger seasonal and regional changes within Ireland. These changes are most likely to cause drier and warmer climate in the interior of the island while coastal areas will have a relatively wetter, cooler climate. While Ireland has seen milder winters and warmer summers since 1961, seasonal temperatures from 2070 to 2099 are likely to increase the most during summer and autumn.
THE MISTY ISLAND DRIES OUT
Irish citizens have access to 5 times as much fresh water as the average European. High measures of annual rainfall and low evaporation rates have left a legacy of short coastal streams on peat covered hills and a maze of bogs and lakes along flood-prone inland rivers. However, this legacy may be broken as climate change could yield too much water in some places at some times and too little of it in other places at the same time. Scientists predict that by 2050 winter rainfall will increase by 12 percent and summer rainfall will decline by the same percentage.
This change in rainfall will put one of the Irish landscapes unique features, peat bogs, at risk of more frequent "bog bursts" when masses of peat loosen from their bedrock and slide down slopes. Such bursts could pose threats to lives, property, to many important Irish species such as rabbits and two of Ireland's birds: falcons and golden plovers. Bogs are also excellent carbon sinks that hold the bulk of Ireland's stored carbon. When they burst, they release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the Irish landscape retains less carbon in the ground.
With hotter, drier summers reducing the summer water supply in inland areas, water accessibility, which currently isn't necessary for the majority of Irish farming, may necessitate the development of new irrigation systems, which will compete with industrial and residential water demands.
Most of the current primary crops in Ireland are already showing evidence of decline. The potato in particular is highly dependant on adequate water supply so it may cease being a commercially viable crop. It is difficult to comprehend that the potato, a part of the landscape so intertwined in Ireland's culture and history, may not feature strongly in its future.
COASTS UNDER THREAT
The sea swallows up about 750 acres of Ireland each year, and the process is only quickening as sea level rise crawls up the western and northern coasts of the island. Due to its "saucer shaped" topography, with coastal cliffs feeding into lower inland areas, Ireland's coastlines and inland are particularly threatened by more frequent, long lasting, widespread flooding induced by global warming.
With ever rising sea levels, the Irish coast is dwindling away. As coasts rapidly change over the next century, coastal infrastructure, fishing communities, native plant species, and agricultural practices will be greatly impacted. Management of water resources, flood protection, buildings, habitats, and land use will be of particular concern.
Much of the sea level rise in Ireland will be associated with weather extremes, particularly the severity of storms and storm surges. Irish precipitation and flooding has been traditionally associated with long duration and low intensity events, but with climate change- more intense precipitation is likely to result in increased incidence of flooding and give rise to water quality issues.
GREEN TO BROWN
The Irish landscape faces many pressures from global warming that will result in visual changes to vegetation and land use. Losses of habitat vital to many species of flora and fauna and the stability of the landscape itself will change due to greater weather extremes. Arable land in particular regions of the country will continue to grow fields of wheat, barley, and corn as climate changes. In other regions, however, with the emergence of warmer and dryer summers, brown fields of grass during the summer months will become much more common.
The curlew, a beloved Irish bird known for its distinct cry, is endangered by climate change. Ireland's lakes and streams - renowned for salmon and sea trout - will be depleted and suffer along with the tourism industry which depends upon them.
In addition, warming may lure new bird species, exotic insect species such as butterflies and moths, and some agricultural insect pests and predatory insect species. The arrival of these invasive species could have a negative impact on species native to Ireland struggling with global warming.
CHANGES IN CLIMATE, CHANGES IN CULTURE
As Irish mountaineer and filmmaker Dermont Summers has pointed out, the green softness and richness of the Irish landscape, the "certain colors and textures" such as tweed, hints of moss, ash trees, woodland flowers, leaves in autumn, and barley, "represent both an ancient culture and a culture that is vibrant and living in the modern landscape today."
The ecological effects of climate change will affect the look and feel of the Irish landscape, bringing shifts in rainfall, changing patterns of flora, and a narrowing of the color range that we associate with the Irish countryside. With this, the intuitive sense of place and lifestyle of the Irish people will change as well. Irish traditions such as music, poetry, and leisure are deeply connected to the Irish landscape and culture and serve to explain how changes to one can influence the other.
In Ireland, there may not be a single catastrophic event or a moment or a day when the full force of climate change is recognizable to all at once, but the changes will come. The alterations of global warming will accumulate, have their impact, and change not only the country's physical landscape, but also its outlook.
"The collective memory is connected to the people and the landscape. And if the landscape disappears, the historical- the storytelling also disappears" according to Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland's Labour Party.
KEEPING IRELAND GREEN
Ireland has experienced expansive economic growth in the last 20 years, growing by 150 percent since 1990. With increased economic growth and rising standards of living came larger energy demands. Ireland's demand for energy has grown by more than 70 percent in the last 15 years with usage increasing in every sector. Ireland's energy demand is projected to grow by about 30 percent between now and 2020.
This increase in energy use also increased Ireland's emission of global warming pollution, leading to current levels of more than 25 percent above what they were in 1990. In response, Ireland has committed to the EU's Action Plan to achieve at least a 20 percent reduction of heat-trapping emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. To meet this ambitious goal the Irish government has designed the National Climate Change Strategy. These commitments include a target of 12 percent of heating coming from renewable energy; using biofuels as 10 percent of the total fuels for road transportation; achieving 33 percent of electricity consumption from renewable energy sources; installing 500 megawatts of ocean energy capacity from new technologies like tidal and wave power, and achieving 800 megawatts from combined heat and power systems that efficiently create electricity.