heatwave

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This summer’s heatwave has us all wondering how to stay cool, but animals are facing the same issues as humans with fewer means of coping. Professor Tom Oliver is Professor of Applied Ecology at the University of Reading UK, and his research focuses on understanding the causes of changes to biodiversity to support environmental decision-making. Here he looks at the potentially worrying impact the drought conditions could have on wildlife in the UK.

Marbled white butterfly with butterfly recorder in background. Long-term monitoring schemes give us invaluable information on how species have responded to past drought events.

With widespread reports of intense heatwaves and drought across the Northern hemisphere this summer, combined with our own personal observations of how everything is starting to look very parched, it is natural to wonder how drought is affecting our wildlife.

When the temperature heats up, we humans can take measures to reduce our exposure, such as heading down the shops to buy a fan, or even installing air conditioning. Yet, our wildlife has much less opportunity for such ‘learned’ adaptation to climate change.

That said, there are innate behaviours that can help wildlife to cope; for example many insects regulate their body temperatures by moving to cooler, moister habitats (e.g deep woodland or shady streams and ponds) when things get too hot. The food sources of these insects are also more likely to persist in such areas. So the existence of such ‘refuge’ habitats can be crucial in allowing species to persist under intense heat and drought events.

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We’re all keenly aware of the heat wave that is affecting the UK and beyond – but why might it be happening? Len Shaffrey, University of Reading Professor of Climate Science, explains all in a new post for The Conversation.

Image credit: the Met Office

The UK and Ireland have been experiencing a prolonged hot and dry spell since June, with the first half of summer being the UK’s driest on record. The lack of rainfall has led to hosepipe bans in Northern Ireland and the north-west of England, while the weather is also playing havoc with farming. A shortage of lettuce and broccoli is expected in the next few months, and grass isn’t growing fast enough to feed Ireland’s sheep and cattle through the winter.

The hot and dry weather is associated with a high pressure weather system situated over the UK. The high pressure means that the storms the UK occasionally gets at this time of year are being steered much further northwards towards Iceland. While the UK and Ireland have been wilting in the sunshine, Reykjavík has recorded its wettest (May) and cloudiest (June) months on record.

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The University of Reading weather records, captured at the Atmospheric Observatory, are updated daily and are publicly available online. Temperatures and rain records go back to 1908, while the sunshine records start in 1956. Dr Rob Thompson in the Department of Meteorology has crunched the numbers to give his perspective on the current heatwave.

32           The 32-day period with no rain recorded at the University of Reading weather station this summer was the fifth longest on our record. This run, between 18 June and 19 July inclusive, ended when 0.5mm of rain fell on Friday 20 July. The outright Reading record for days with no rain observed is 37 days, which has occurred twice, in summer 1976 and summer into autumn 1959.

6.5          The tiny amount of rain that fell last week is nowhere near enough to help our gardens and the wider countryside, though. So what if we allow a little rain in a day and keep counting? The last recorded rain before Friday was on 17 June, when just 0.2mm fell, while 0.3mm fell the day before that. There was also 0.3mm on 9 June, 1mm on 7 June and 4.6mm on 3 June. This gives a June total of 6.5mm, making it the driest month since April 2011, and the driest June since 1962.

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Anxious about the fate of your dahlias and tomatoes in the warm weather? Dr Alastair Culham from the School of Biological Sciences explains the best time of day to water your garden in a new post for The Conversation.

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By Stephen Burt, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading

There is much febrile comment in the media concerning the current heatwave. A common statement is ‘this is the greatest heatwave since the hot summer of 1976’.

Always a shame to spoil a good story with the truth, but that’s simply not true, and by a long way.

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