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Frying or Freezing: Talk The Talk

Updated Thursday, 8th September 2005

How to sound like an expert. It’s easy enough to chat about the British weather ... but global climate change? It’s so much meatier as a subject - and so much more controversial. Make sure you’ve got the following bits and pieces of terminology confidently tripping off your tongue so you can put your points with force. No more "nice weather for the time of year" - now you can launch in with your evaluation of our chances of growing wine-worthy grapes in the back garden by the year 2010

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Jeff Jefferies of the Met Office

The phrase "greenhouse effect" is, surprisingly, not new at all.

It was first coined by the natural philosopher Jean Baptiste Fourier in the 19th Century. He began to ponder the question of how the Earth stays warm enough to support the diverse range of life that thrives on its surface... and he came up with the hypothesis that energy from the Sun is reflected back into the sky from the land and oceans’ surfaces - some of it being trapped by water vapour and the other blanket of gases that surround the planet.

Fourier published his theory in 1824 - but like so many other thinkers of revolutionary ideas, he was ahead of his time, and his work was subsequently forgotten by the majority of the scientific community ....

And while we’re on the subject of the "greenhouse effect", it’s important to be clear about one thing: it’s got virtually nothing to do with the hole in the ozone layer.

The two eco-worries have been prominently covered by the media simultaneously, causing many people to be confused about which is which, and are they the same thing ?

The hole in the ozone layer lets in harmful ultraviolet light, which is bad for human skin, for example - but it doesn’t cause the atmosphere to heat up.

It’s true to say that all parts of the earth’s system interact "somewhat", and both the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone layer are marks of global change, BUT ... they’re totally different. And you should be able to win some money on wagers on that one if you time it right!

Also: climate and weather aren’t the same ... but this time they are related. Climate is defined as "average weather", with no fixed time over which it’s measured.

If you want to know about the climate, you can look at weather reports, and if there are enough of them, you can work out the averages. But what about if you’re wondering about the climate before records were kept?

That’s where you need climate proxies. A climate proxy is something which is indicative of climate but doesn’t measure it directly. For example: tree rings - even ancient ones - indicate temperatures and rainfall to the trained eye, and this has become a very precise science of late. It’s called "dendrochronology" if you want to show off ...

Evaporites are another source of clues which are useful to the past-climate detectives.

These are salt deposits which indicate an excess of evaporation over precipitation - or where the climate was "dry", to use layman’s terms.

The reverse situation happens with peat and coal deposits for example, which show that in the past there was an excess of precipitation to evaporation. It was boggy, in other words...

The fossil fuel industry, politicians, economists and industrialists all have serious professional concerns in relation to the future of the climate. And these often conflict.

Take, for example, the inevitable rise in sea-level that accompanies global warming. Most of the world’s population lives at sea level. There’ll be an increase in flooding in these areas if sea levels rise … which will lead to multitudinous insurance claims … which will, in turn, have an economic impact on the countries involved. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry is concerned about not being able to sell its produce, and it lobbies against any political action not in its favour, whereas island nations naturally lobby in the other direction.

Multiply these disagreements up many times in many permutations, and you can start to see the complexity of the situation…

Captain Robert Fitzroy is known as the father of the modern weather forecast, and he established the Met Office in the UK in 1854. If you feel you’ve heard his name before somewhere, you have. He is even better known as the captain of the Beagle, the ship which took Charles Darwin on the 5-year voyage of adventure that led to the formulation of the theory of evolution.

When Fitzroy came back to England he set up the Met Office, as a means of detecting and warning sailors of nasty weather ahoy. He began by collecting weather observations from England and Ireland, which were then relayed to the shipping insurers Lloyds of London, so that ships’ captains could examine them. Later he introduced the first storm warnings by means of the electronic telegraph, and he also invented two types of barometer.


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