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Monday, September 26, 2022

The unseen effects of climate change

Over the past 2 weeks, crowds have travelled from all over Wales to see the rare and beautiful sightings of the recently nicknamed “Wally The Walrus”.

The magnificent 3-year-old female was spotted in Tenby over the past week where she has remained since. People have been shocked to see such a rare creature here in the UK, with the only other Walrus sighting being from 1954 in Scotland, over 65 years ago. News outlets have reported the sighting as “unbelievably amazing” and “fantastic to see here in the UK!” But is this really a triumph? Or does this unusual sighting tell us something more important? 

Before the world became subdued by a global pandemic, we were being warned by every activist and environmental outlet of the serious and very real effects of climate change. I remember the huge amount of articles I read on the severity of the situation, and being genuinely terrified for the first time in my life about what was happening to our planet. But much like every social situation or movement, sadly they lose their momentum due to other, more ‘important movements’ arising. But what could be more important than the health of our planet? If we kill our planet – we have nothing. 

We are seeing the effects of climate change now more than ever. Mother Nature is screaming at us to do something before it’s too late, and this unusual sighting of a walrus in the UK isn’t an exciting event, but actually a very tragic one. The past decade has been the hottest on record, with 2020 being more than 1.2C hotter than the average temperature in the 19th century. 1.2C might not seem like a big increase in temperature, but it has triggered the largest wildfires ever recorded in the US states of California and Colorado, as summer 2020 was named the “black summer” due to these events.

Flames from the Valley Fire cover a hillside along Highway 29 in Lower Lake, California, September 13, 2015

A 1.2C increase meant that in June 2020, the temperature in certain parts of the Arctic reached 38C – the hottest ever recorded temperature within the Arctic circle. It caused a heatwave in the Arctic last year which accelerated the melting of sea ice in the eastern Siberian seas, and delayed the usual Arctic freeze by almost two months. It meant that in March 2021, an artic Walrus was found on the Welsh coast alone and isolated from its family after drifting away on a melting ice cap. This 1.2C increase has changed our planet drastically, and this will only get worse as temperatures continue to rise. 

Between 1979-2018, the proportion of Arctic sea ice that is at least five years old declined from 30% to 2%, according to the IPCC, and the Walrus is one of the animals that has been most affected by this consequence of climate change.

We are waking a sleeping giant as a result of climate change. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It’s on the UK’s doorstep and it affects us all.

Rod Downie, Chief Polar Advisor for WWF

This statement last year by Rod Downie, Chief Polar Advisor for WWF, has sadly now turned from a warning into reality. The sightings of this past week aren’t exciting, but very real and scary. This animal isn’t meant to be here, there is a reason we don’t see Walruses in the UK and that’s because this isn’t their natural habitat. Walruses are also some of the closest pack animals – with the bonds between mother and child being some the strongest in the animal kingdom – so to see a young, 3-year-old Walrus alone, 1000s of miles away from her home, isn’t an ‘exciting event’, in reality it is a tragedy. 

What I saw in Tenby

After travelling 2 hours from Cardiff to Tenby to see this beautiful creature for myself and find out more about why it was visiting us, I managed to speak to a local volunteer for Welsh Marine Life Rescue, Amy Compton, who said “I believe he will have drifted down here while he was asleep, probably on a melted ice cap”. The moment she said this, this ‘exciting event’ suddenly became very real to me, and very sad. This creature was here not as a rare and exciting chance event, but because of the very real effects of climate change. 

I want to highlight how this situation isn’t getting any better. Many people seem to have put climate change on the back burner in terms of what’s important in the world right now, believing that the effects of lockdown have somehow helped climate change slow down. In reality this isn’t the case – the effect of lockdowns on concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere this year were so small that it registers as a ’blip’” and were said to be “hardly distinguishable from the year-to-year fluctuations of the carbon cycle” and having had “a negligible impact on the overall curve of rising CO2 levels”, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

Many people don’t realise the extent to which this affects not only our planet, but eventually us. With a 1.5C increase in world temperature, sea levels could rise by 1.8 feet which may not sound like a lot but much like the effects of a 1.2C rise in temperature, this ‘small increase’ in sea levels could negatively impact more than 1 billion people by 2050. With an increase of 1.5C, 70% of the world’s coral reefs will be at risk, and with an extra 0.5C on top of that, virtually all coral reefs are at risk. Changes in water temperature cause algae to leave coral reefs, turning them white and making them vulnerable to disease and death –  a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. With a 1.5C increase, it will take little more than a century for us to be having completely ice-free Arctic summers, and with an extra 0.5C rise on top of that, this period would be reduced to merely a decade.

Coral Bleaching in the Scott Reef, 2016. Credit: James Gilmour

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and ice-free summers could become a reality sooner than we think. As the earth continues to warm, crucial habitats may no longer be hospitable for certain animals or plants. This puts a variety of species at risk, depending on whether they can adapt or move. With a 1.5C increase, plants and animals are at risk of losing more than half of their habitats.

If this isn’t enough to make you re-consider how triumphant the sighting of Wally the Walrus was, then I don’t know what is. We need to make people aware of the drastic effects of climate change that are happening every day, and help people to understand what they can do to help, and why it is so important to play whatever part you can in the preservation of our beautiful planet. 

Many people think the only way they can help is to become completely vegetarian or vegan, but this isn’t the case. If we all did our small little bit in helping as a collective, we would reduce the impacts of climate change dramatically. 

So what can you do to help? 

1. Weatherize – If you’re feeling chilly and are tempted to pop the heating on, grab your fluffiest pair of socks and cosiest dressing gown instead!

2. Switch to renewable energy – Power your home through a utility company that generates at least half of its power from wind or solar energy.

3. Reduce water waste – Saving water reduces carbon pollution as it takes a lot of energy to heat and treat your water. So instead of standing under the delicious scorching hot shower for those extra ten minutes, just stay in for the time you need.

4. Eat the food you buy! – This one is simple – if you’re not going to eat it… don’t buy it! Approximately 10 percent of U.S. energy use goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food – about 40 percent of which just ends up in the landfill.

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