World News

U.K. ‘Heat Wave’? Irish ‘Drought’? Unfamiliar Words for Unfamiliar Times

Posted July 4, 2018 3:54 p.m. EDT

CHELMSFORD, England — Normally, a lush layer of green grass would cover Luigi Munday’s fields at this time of year — enough to feed his cattle until September. Instead, the land is parched and the grass is withered, forcing him to dip into his winter stock of hay to keep his herd fed.

“I don’t remember the last time we went six weeks without rain,” Munday said on Wednesday. “Only a proper week of full-on British rain can save the situation now.”

As soon as he dropped a bale of hay into his fields in Chelmsford, northeast of London, his 31 cows ran toward it and devoured the fodder. “See how hungry they are?” he asked.

Much of “England’s green and pleasant land” — and Ireland’s and Scotland’s and Wales’ — is turning brown and brittle. Weeks of unusual heat (by British Isles standards), more than a month of unusually dry weather and forecasts that those conditions will continue have people using terms not often heard in this part of the world: “heat wave” and “drought.”

For many people, the blue skies and temperatures in the 80s — even, occasionally, the 90s — are a rare gift, especially after a long, snowy winter, and Britons are flocking to beaches and parks by the thousands. But the downside is real.

Britain had the second-hottest June on record, and much of the country had the driest June. That weather that has persisted into July, driving up water use even as reservoir and river levels fall.

Last week, the temperature in Motherwell, a town southeast of Glasgow, hit 91.8 degrees, the highest ever recorded in Scotland, and Shannon Airport reached 89.6 degrees, the highest in Ireland in 12 years.

A brush fire that started on June 24 and continues to spread has blackened more than 6,000 acres of Saddleworth Moor, east of Manchester; the authorities said Wednesday it is being investigated as a possible arson.

And there have been scattered cases of mass fish die-offs in lakes and streams, possibly caused by heat and low water levels.

For now, officials say, there is enough water to meet essential needs. But the Northern Ireland Water company has temporarily banned watering gardens and washing cars, and some regional water companies in other parts of Britain have asked people to take voluntary conservation measures.

Without a few drenching rains, more mandatory restrictions are expected as the summer unfolds.

Even before the dry spell began, the British government’s Environment Agency had raised an alarm about water supplies, warning that between climate change and a growing population, the country needed to become much more efficient about water use.

Climatologists say that it is hard to connect any single weather event to climate change, but that heat waves and extreme swings in precipitation are expected effects. As Britain and Ireland have sweltered, heat waves have also struck Scandinavia, the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, the Caucasus and southern Russia, and other regions.

Every part of the British Isles has had below-normal rainfall, but some have been hit much harder than others.

Heavily populated southeastern England, which includes London, had just 6 percent of the average June rainfall, according to the Met Office, the British government weather agency. And within that region, the county of Essex, which includes Chelmsford, had no rain at all.

Farmers in the area are concerned that at this rate they will have no livestock feed left for the winter. They usually grow their own hay to get through the winter, but this year their stockpiles will not go far enough.

“It’s significant because it costs more than double to buy the hay from suppliers,” said Munday, 60. “There’s not much money in this cattle business.”

In a handful of rural areas, taps have run dry because pockets of air have formed in pipes, preventing water from flowing through. One farmer affected in Derbyshire, in the English Midlands, had to resort to digging for water.

“We’ve had to find an old well in one of the fields and pump out the water into containers,” the farmer, Greg Cotterell, told The Derbyshire Telegraph, a local newspaper. “I’m hoping it will take the edge off the cows’ thirst, but we’re literally just hanging on at the moment.”

The lack of rainfall, coming during a crucial period for the growth of many crops, poses a threat to fall harvests.

“Farmers are used to dealing with the challenges extreme weather can pose, but this year has been unusual, from an extremely wet winter and spring to a month where there has been very little rainfall in some areas,” said Guy Smith, the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union. “This is another example of the extra volatility food producers are faced with.”

Munday said that at this stage there was not much livestock farmers can do but try to keep their animals fed and hydrated.

“There’s an instinct to just sell your stock, but you can’t do that because everyone is in the same boat,” he said. “We just have to keep going and hope for some rain.”