As freak weather becomes the norm as a result of the climate crisis, we take a look back at the extreme conditions that shaped 2021 and what’s in store for Ireland next.
Professor John Sweeney from the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units says Ireland got off lightly compared to many other countries in the past year.
But despite our usually temperate weather, two storms, record breaking mercury levels and drought still hit the nation in 2021.
Storm Arwen raged from November 26 with wind speeds of up to 96km/h and claimed the life of Maghera head teacher Francis Lagan.
Hot on the devastating tempest’s heels was Storm Barra, which hit on December 7 and saw Mace Head, Co Galway battered with sustained 104 km/h winds and Newport, Mayo showered with 31mm of rain.
While he doesn’t have a crystal ball, Maynooth University’s emeritus professor Sweeney says research is underway on how climate change will impact the jet stream and what that could mean for Irish weather in the coming years.
He told us: “The last year wasn’t the worst year. We escaped quite a lot of the extreme events that characterised 2016-2017 onwards.
“People will probably remember the very dry spring that we had. It was quite cool and spring was quite late in Ireland this year.
“People will remember droughts from late May onwards [and] summer, which was actually one of the better summers we’ve had in recent years.
“It was one of the three driest Junes we’ve had on record. That took us all the way up to the holidays in August. Since then we’ve had a mild, dry autumn.
“We’ve had two main storms so far this year – Storm Arwen and Storm Barra,” added the meteorology and climate expert.
“All in all, we haven’t had a winter of extremes like in some of the more recent years. Our biggest event was Storm Barra, which people will remember very clearly.”
Prof Sweeney says the impact of climate change was much more obvious in North America, Australia and Central Europe.
“The fires, extreme temperatures and increasing extremes around the world… is what the IPCC have indicated are more likely to occur as the world warms up,” he explained.
“The nearest major event to us was probably the floods in Germany. We now can label those floods as having been significantly contributed to by climate change effects.
“We can also label extreme temperatures in Western Canada where I think they have gone up to about 46 degrees in the summer, as being helped by climate change.
“In Ireland, we haven’t had the winter flooding on a major scale that we’ve had in recent years so far,” he added.
“We had some during Storm Barra but it was fairly short lived.
“We’ve had an escape from the more extreme events happening outside Ireland.”
What’s next for Irish weather
While he couldn’t be 2022-specific, Prof Sweeney says future impacts of the jet stream will be key.
“We normally have a maximum temperature of 33 degrees centigrade and if you compare that with reports of 38 degrees in an area (Siberia) not too far from the North Pole – it indicates we have a very strong moderating effect by the ocean here,” he explained.
“It stops our temperatures getting to the very high levels experienced in North America, Central Europe and Central Asia.”
But he warns the value of being surrounded by sea could “be challenged in the next few years”.
“The Irish climate is warming up and we have already warmed up by 0.6 to maybe 1 degree in the past 30 to 50 years,” he added.
“This is already giving us on average earlier springs and longer growing seasons but year to year that is varying.
“This year spring was cold and quite late. By contrast summer was longer, drier and warmer than the average with drought.
“The IPCC are indicating that extreme events are becoming more frequent,” he added.
“Events that were happening once every 50 years are likely to be happening every 10 to 20 years.
“The kind of extremes of heat and rainfall we’ve had in the past… are more likely to become more frequent.
“They are also likely to be accentuated by increased storm activity especially at sea level.
“We are going to see more and more coastal erosion, more coastal flooding,” he added.
“The jet stream is the key to the Irish climate and we do need to research very carefully whether changes in the jet stream are being influenced by what’s happening in the Atlantic further north of us here in Ireland.
“In particular the effect that summer sea ice reductions and the warming of the Arctic that we’ve had, in making the jet stream less reliable and therefore, maybe making extreme events in Ireland likely to be more frequent in future.
“That’s the big unknown for many in the research community at the minute.”
What you can do to help
Climate expert Professor Sweeney says: “Our actions will have direct and serious consequences for other parts of the world and we have a responsibility as international citizens to make sure we don’t make matters worse in the years to come.
“On a personal level this involves using energy more efficiently, limiting the use of fossil fuels for transport and heating and being more environmentally conscious about the products we buy and the energy efficiency of how we use them as well,” he added.
“Irish people have a moral responsibility as a country that has a historically long record of adding more than its fair share of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere… to play our part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly, reducing methane emissions even more quickly and pulling our weight in the international community.”
- Spring sprung early
- Mercury hit record levels causing summer droughts
- September provisionally named warmest on record
- Autumn very mild and relatively dry
- Storm Arwen raged in November claiming the life of headteacher Francis Lagan
- Storm Barra’s ferocious winds battered Ireland on December 7
- It’s looking like Christmas will be rainy rather than white
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