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What are the effects of global warming in the UK? And how can we make a difference?

Global warming affects all of us. And we can already see changes here in the UK - in our weather, in our landscapes. Even in the behaviour of our wildlife. More can be expected.

But all is not lost. Not yet. We can all take action to make a difference.

Climate change is already having effects in the UK. (Photo: John MacPherson/WTML)
Climate change is already having effects in the UK. (Photo: John MacPherson/WTML)

What is global warming?

The term global warming reflects the fact that the mean annual average temperature of the Earth’s surface has been increasing for many decades. The planet is getting warmer because of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas. According to NASA, the global mean surface temperature is almost 1C warmer now than in 1880.

Although the average temperature changes seem modest, they vary considerably. The biggest changes are at higher latitudes. These affect atmospheric and oceanic currents and the extent of sea ice, which together change the climate.

Climate change poses a major threat to our natural environment, both directly and indirectly:

  • The weather is becoming more unpredictable with more frequent and severe events such as storms, droughts and flooding.
  • Sea ice is declining at almost 13% each decade, causing sea levels to rise at a rate of 3.4mm every year.
  • Coral reefs are experiencing bleaching events and die-off, threatening the marine ecosystems that depend on them.
  • Melting permafrost is releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, creating a feedback loop that could result in runaway global warming.

What are the effects of global warming in the UK?

The Met Office's UK climate projections suggest that all areas will be warmer by the 2080s, with summers warming more than winters.

Rainfall patterns will change, with more winter precipitation (less likely to fall as snow) in the west and less summer rain generally.

The UK will also experience extreme weather events more often, such as droughts and severe storms.

The impact to wildlife of changing seasons

The impact of these climate events will stress our native wildlife further, interfering with natural cycles that have helped shape our living environment.

The extended cold periods we usually experience in winter normally present a life-or-death challenge to many species. But this helps keep nature in balance. Warmer winters allow greater survival rates. This can place pressure on host food sources in supporting larger populations the following spring.

 

Non-native species arriving in the UK will have a better chance to take hold. They often lack natural predators, so have the potential to survive, persist and even thrive - becoming invasive. Examples of invasive species include Himalayan balsam, the harlequin ladybird and the ring-necked parakeet.

Worryingly, many pests and diseases of our native trees will be more likely to survive winter and become established.

How will global warming affect woods and trees?

A changing climate will inevitably impact the factors that control germination. These changes are already creating mismatches in nature.

For example, the earlier arrival of spring leads to earlier leafing dates for many trees. This in turn means that peak numbers of leaf-eating caterpillars also occur earlier. This can lead to a shortage of supply for birds such as blue tit, great tit and pied flycatcher, which don’t seem to be changing their egg laying dates to match.

Patterns like this could lead to changes in the composition of our woodland species and alter their distributions across the landscape.

Tree seeds rely on stable conditions to germinate, but hope isn't lost. (Photo: FLPA/Alamy Stock Photo)
Tree seeds rely on stable conditions to germinate, but hope isn't lost. (Photo: FLPA/Alamy Stock Photo)

What can we do?

We need to make serious moves to reduce our carbon emissions and the extent of global warming. We can limit the worst effects of climate change if we act now, increasing our resilience to future impacts.

Trees have a vital role to play in helping mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. They can:

  • reduce carbon in the atmosphere
    Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, drinking it up with sunshine to grow. Planting new trees and woodland is the best way to reduce atmospheric carbon and forms a significant store of carbon over the long term.
  • link habitats
    Wildlife needs to move across landscapes in response to changing climate conditions. But many woodland species are notoriously slow or unwilling to move across non-woodland habitats. Trees outside woods - such as in fields and hedgerows – help keep these communities ecologically connected. Sadly, huge numbers of these trees have been lost over the last couple of centuries as agriculture has become more intensive. Millions more are now threatened by diseases such as ash dieback and acute oak decline.
  • protect the landscape from extreme weather
    Trees will also help us adapt to climate change by providing shade in the summer and shelter from the wind in winter. They also help mitigate flood risks by altering the flow of rain water and improving soil infiltration rates.
  • create a resilient landscape
    Above all, climate change heightens the need for resilient landscapes. We need more woodland in bigger patches, to buffer and extend our remaining ancient woodland. This will also better connect our woods with other habitats. 

Play your part by planting trees in your garden or on your land. Research and get involved in planting in your community.  All of this helps connect wildlife habitats and strengthen our landscapes. Visit our tree shop for some planting inspiration.

Don’t have time or room to plant trees? Help combat the threats to our habitats by supporting our work with a donation. We use your money to protect woods and plant trees for wildlife and people.

Monitoring the effects with Nature's Calendar

The Nature’s Calendar project tracks the effects of weather and climate change on wildlife across the UK. Its records date all the way back to 1736! Records show that on average, spring is now arriving 11 days earlier than in the 19th century.

Of course, no two years are ever the same, and some are warmer than those that follow. But the small changes and general patterns emerging show a changing trend in the underlying climate.

We record 69 wildlife events for the project to help scientists better understand the effects of climate change as well as other patterns in the natural environment.

This work relies on your sightings. By taking just a few minutes to share what you see with Nature’s Calendar, you'll be adding to centuries' worth of important data for studies worldwide.

Track changes in the seasons and climate

Record with Nature's Calendar