2012-02-17 03:55:22Drought and climate change: where instinct and perception are not our friends
John Mason



Mark Lynas emailed me this morning to pass this job on to me as he's on holiday. It's for the Guardian, but knowing the latter's sometimes fickle nature, I have no idea if they will publish or not! It's about how perception and instinct make it difficult to explain, in the damp greyness of winter, that parts of the UK are in for a likely severe drought this year, and at the end I extend the topic to cover climate change. If the Guardian don't go for it then it might fill a gap in the schedules here at some point, so here it is:


Drought and climate change: where instinct and perception are not our friends

Perception can be a strange thing. We associate winters here in the UK with a lot of grey, cool and rainy days, any clear and crisp frosty mornings almost a cause for celebration as we drop everything and head out for a good tramp. Drought is something that brings to mind searing temperatures, the air full of dust and haze with images of dried-up reservoirs, their beds a polygonal pattern of mudcracks. So a perceptual response to warnings of drought, possibly as severe of that in 1976, being issued in the depths of winter, is one of incredulity. It is also wrong.

I certainly recall the 1976 drought. I was just 14 back then, and one abiding memory of that longest of long summers was the feeling of helplessness as the plants in the family garden withered away. The only water we could put on the beds was that we had used in bathing, so that it was nowhere near enough to go around, resulting in a form of vegetable triage as some plants were sacrificed so that others could live. Right at the end of that summer, off we went to Wales on holiday and the visit to the reservoirs of the Elan Valley presented a vision of exactly what a drought should look like, perceived or otherwise.

On that August Bank Holiday weekend, we camped on the banks of Afon Edw, a tributory of the Wye, when the drought finally broke as low pressure moved up from the south and thundery rain broke out widely. The following morning I awoke to find the river about to burst its banks. It was hoofing it down. We bundled everything up and fled. I learned something new on that day: when the ground has been dry for months, heavy rain will run straight off its surface, sending rivers into almost immediate spate. On returning home, I discovered that the soil in our garden was bone dry just a couple of inches down, despite the torrential downpours. It takes more than one rainstorm for such deeply desiccated ground to even begin to recover. Ironically, just a few days before, Dennis Howell was appointed Minister for Drought, a coincidence not missed by the Tabloids.

People will associate that drought with the summer, but in fact it began much earlier - in April 1975 - when a long period of below-average rainfall commenced. And this is where the perception problem occurs. Droughts often creep up unexpectedly, except to those charged with monitoring the situation. By the time a serious summer heatwave arrives, such as that of June-July 1976, with people keeling over at Wimbledon being the stuff of news, the crisis had been ongoing for months. As meteorologist Philip Eden, writing on the Weatheronline website, comments: “By April 1976 the drought had become very serious, not only for the water-supply industry but also for agriculture. The topsoil in East Anglia had turned to dust and was being systematically eroded by stiff easterly winds, and farmers warned of poor yields unless the rains came soon. They didn't.”

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology note that synoptic patterns - the distribution of low and high pressure systems - have over the past year or two produced a sustained exaggeration in the NW-SE rainfall gradient. This means that low-pressure systems, bringing in moisture from the Atlantic, have typically steered across the NW half of the UK, dumping most of their rain on the western upslopes of the country. The mountains of Scotland, the Lake District and Wales have certainly received plenty of precipitation at times: it is in the south and east of the country where the long-term rainfall deficit is being felt. The Environment Agency's river-level website shows that some of the chalk-streams of southern England are running at especially low levels: the Kennet at Marlborough was, at the time of writing, just four centimetres deep. This is right down at the bottom of the typical range - in February, a traditionally wet month if ever there was one.

Incredulity at the prospect of a severe drought comes from a classic example of misperception: against all our instincts, river levels across many parts of the south are way, way below normal. I have given a link below to the EA river levels homepage and would recommend readers to go and see for themselves. The hard data tell the tale: they may confound perception, but perception is something that the natural world does not take into account.

So: it's raining outside yet they say there is a drought? It's snowing outside - ah, so this is global warming, is it? The latter was frequently heard in late 2010, when for several weeks parts of England and Wales were seeing overnight minima of -10C or colder and snow blanketed the ground. Instinct and perception do not tend to go beyond the range of one's senses. They are old abilities that have satisfied important needs for much of Homo Sapiens' time on Earth. But again, the data were telling the real story. On November 28th 2010, 0600 GMT temperatures in parts of Wales had fallen to a record-breaking -18C, but at the same time, Kangerlussuaq, inside the Arctic Circle in western Greenland, the minimum was +9C, a remarkable 27C warmer. Normally, instinct would automatically tend to have us expect these figures to be the other way around, but down came the snow, pipes froze and people and Tabloid headlines alike said, “Global warming? Pah!”.

Perhaps it is these abilities, instinct and perception, making us tend to focus attention on the here and now, that are one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the whole climate change debate. If you live on the slopes of a volcano that suddenly starts erupting, perception and instinct have you running for your life. Conversely, problems in the natural world that take a long time to develop, drought and climate change included, are not in the here and now but in the there and then, a place where perception and instinct, it seems, offer little in the way of helpful guidance.

 Link to include for readers to check out the data:


2012-02-17 06:09:53
Andy S


Good luck with this! If the Grauniad won't publish it, we should. Perhaps a repost here would be worthwhile even if it is published there.

2012-02-17 06:51:27
John Mason


Thanks Andy. The Guardian were quite specific in what they wanted of Mark and it is an interesting area to explore: one thing the deniers certainly exploit is instinctive incredulity. To me, denialism is a long-term extension of applied instinctive incredulity, which is why it flies in the face of science, something that has to rely upon other human abilities. I shall see what the morrow brings!

Cheers - John

2012-02-19 09:08:48


John: good luck with this.

My memories of 1976 include a plague of greenfly in Brixton, driving in a police-controlled convoy through a forest fire near Box Hill and fighting relatively small fires with garden hoses because the fire brigade was stretched beyond capacity.

"The demands on the Fire Service were so severe that they would only attend an incident if lives were in danger or if houses were imminently threatened."


2012-02-19 09:27:38
Mark Richardson


2012-02-19 21:00:11
John Mason


Nothing from the Guardian so far - will email them later in the week.

For SkS purposes it wants a bit of tweaking anyway but I think the psychology of climate change perception is well worth exploring. If the Guardian don't go with it, perhaps it can be used in a few weeks - plenty of more urgent stuff to go up on the front end in the meantime!

Cheers - John

2012-02-21 00:48:07
John Mason


It's up: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/20/drought-summit-winter-caroline-spelman

Cheers - John

2012-02-21 04:37:48
Rob Painting

Well done! Incidentally, a similar effect (the inability to appreciate, or respond to, long-term change) is taking place with wildlife populations - it's called shifting baselines. 

2012-02-21 04:54:22
Dana Nuccitelli

Congrats John, it's no easy feat to crack The Guardian!

2012-02-21 05:20:18


Nice job.

2012-02-21 05:24:29


Excellent.  Well done!

2012-02-21 06:19:07
John Mason


I'm pleased to note not too much denialist stuff on there either - a couple tried it on earlier but the mods went straight in. Bish-bash - gone!

The piece could not have been written as it was without what I have learned since hooking up with you guys - so thanks are very much due. It seems to have made a few people stop and think - which if applied in multiples, as SkS obviously has achieved - gets more and more people taking the world around them seriously.

Cheers - John