Drought conditions in the Pentlands

How is climate change impacting Scotland?

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Climate change is often spoken of as a future threat to humanity. But Earth’s climate has already been warmed significantly by human activity and is currently heating faster than at any point in recorded history. 

This global warming is having major effects. Experts say it is causing more severe storms, increased drought, species loss, and sea level rises across the world.

So how has it impacted Scotland so far? As part of our series, Scotland and the Climate Crisis, Ferret Fact Service looks at the key ways the climate emergency is already changing Scotland and how it will continue to do so in the future. 

How much have Scottish temperatures increased? 

Average temperatures in Scotland rose by 0.5C in just thirty years between 1990 and 2020. All ten of the hottest years on record in the country have occurred since 1997.

The mean annual temperature in Scotland in 2022 was 8.49C, the highest of any year since 1884. The previous record of 8.43C was also within the last decade, in 2014.

Even if global emissions decrease in line with the Paris Agreement – which aims to limit worldwide temperature rises to 1.5 degrees – average Scottish temperatures are expected to continue increasing across all seasons. 

This is because greenhouse gas emissions will keep entering the atmosphere and heating the climate as the world moves to a cleaner future. The extent of future temperature increases will depend on the speed with which the world reduces climate pollution.

How is climate change affecting rainfall? 

The past few decades have seen an increase in rainfall across Scotland, with more of this coming from heavier rainfall.

Winters were nine per cent wetter between 2010 and 2019 than they were between 1961 and 1990. With winters getting warmer, there is projected to be less snowfall in future, but this could still vary widely by year and extreme snowfall events are still likely.

Summers are expected to become drier as well as hotter in future. The risk of droughts – particularly in the east of Scotland – is likely to increase in coming years. 

Are we going to see more extreme weather? 

Many factors contribute to extreme weather events – some natural and some linked to global warming.

Climate change is expected to usher in more heavy rainfall events in both winter and summer. The west of the country is likely to experience more of these than the east. Extreme rainfall in the north west of Scotland, for example, could be ten times more frequent by 2080 than it was in the 1980s. 

The number of heatwave days – defined as days where temperatures do not fall below 15 degrees and maximum temperatures exceed 28 degrees across a large area– is also set to grow

Although Scotland has been battered by high-profile storms in recent years, there is currently no strong evidence that climate change is affecting storminess in the UK. 

What about sea level rise? 

Sea level rise is caused by two processes linked to climate change; the melting of polar ice caps as global temperatures increase which adds water to the oceans, and by sea water warming up, which causes it to expand.

Sea level rises across the UK are not uniform, but rates in different locations ranged from 3 millimetres per year to 5.2 millimetres per year between 1991 and 2020. 

Overall the whole of Scotland is now experiencing sea level rise although this is happening at different rates because parts of the land are also rising as part of a rebound from the last Ice Age, when the weight of ice sheets pushed it down. 

Even in a scenario where global climate pollution falls quickly, sea levels around Edinburgh are expected to be around 12 centimetres higher by 2050.

These rises are set to cause more coastal flooding and erosion, with impacts for the communities, habitats and infrastructure located near Scotland’s lengthy coastline.

Is wildlife being impacted? 

Many of Scotland’s species are used to very specific habitats that could be disrupted by climate change. 

Species such as the Atlantic salmon, capercaillie, and pearl mussel are all at threat. A 2019 report on the state of nature claimed one in nine Scottish species – including wildcats and kittiwakes – are threatened by extinction. 

According to figures from the body responsible for protecting Scottish wildlife, NatureScot, Scotland’s birds, mammals, butterflies and moths are struggling to recover from the “twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change”. 

While the number of many of the country’s sea and land species have now stabilised at levels close to those of the 1990s, they are still way down on historic populations. 

As the Scottish climate changes, new species and diseases could also move into, or spread more widely in the country. Some of these could be invasive and outcompete existing Scottish wildlife, placing further strain on these populations.

Is climate change affecting wildfires?

In May, an area of the Highlands – near Cannich – was hit by a massive wildfire. This has led many to question the role that climate change is playing in wildfires.

Most wildfires in Scotland take place in the spring as grass and shrubs dry out. They are usually ignited by human activities like the careless disposal of cigarettes, campfires and barbecues. 

Scotland’s warming climate is expected to mean longer dry spells and an increasing frequency of heatwaves. This will dry out more vegetation, providing more fuel for wildfires. 

This is likely to increase the frequency of wildfires and make them more difficult to contain. 

What about our food supply?

The climatic changes impacting Scotland are having an effect on productivity of our farms.

Warmer summers and less harsh winters may boost yields for certain crops in some areas, but overall the negative impacts are predicted to outweigh the benefits. 

Changes in weather patterns could impact the quality of our soils, create conditions for non-native pests and diseases to thrive, cause farms to flood more, and increase the competition between farmers and other users for scarce water supplies in summer. 

As well as our own native food production, the UK is heavily dependent on food imports from abroad. Climate change impacts like water scarcity will disrupt food production globally meaning that Scots may end up having less access to, or paying more for, some foodstuffs. 

Could it impact our health?

The World Health Organisation has described climate change as the biggest health threat in the 21st century. 

On a global level, there is evidence, for example, that climate change has led to a rise in cases of infectious diseases with climatic forces meaning that people and disease-carrying organisms are living closer together.

A warmer climate could also mean an increase in vector-borne diseases in Scotland. The country has already seen an increase in cases of Lyme disease, as the tick season has extended due to milder winters. 

There are concerns that our houses and buildings are not built to deal with extreme high temperatures and could overheat. Heat related deaths could increase to between 70 and 285 per year by 2050, depending on how much the climate warms.

However, climate change impacts could also reduce the number of people who die from the cold, as winters become milder.

Meanwhile, heavy rainfall events could put more homes, businesses and infrastructure at risk of flooding and landslides, and the associated health risks that come with them. 

Scotland and the Climate Crisis is The Ferret’s first fact-checking series. We asked our members and readers about climate misinformation they had encountered, and which aspects of the climate crisis they wanted to know more about. This series was developed from those suggestions. Support our journalism and fact-checking by becoming a member for £5 a month or a giving a donation at theferret.scot

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