Fens most at risk from climate change

PUBLISHED: 13:32 11 May 2007 | UPDATED: 22:47 28 May 2010

Dog-in-a-Doublet sluice, near Whittlesey, which plays a major role in draining the low-lying Fens

Dog-in-a-Doublet sluice, near Whittlesey, which plays a major role in draining the low-lying Fens

THE Fens are more at risk from climate change than any other part of England, while farmers are in the front line in the battle to make the region carbon neutral, a conference heard. Scientists, academics, farmers and clergy gathered at Ely Maltings to he

A long boat makes use of one of the many drains that have so far managed to stop the Fens being flooded. But will they be able to cope with a predicted Doomsday scenario’ sea level rise of about a metre – Pics: Brian Purdy

THE Fens are more at risk from climate change than any other part of England, while farmers are in the front line in the battle to make the region carbon neutral, a conference heard.

Scientists, academics, farmers and clergy gathered at Ely Maltings to hear the Environment Agency's predictions for how global warming was likely to affect the low-lying area bordered by King's Lynn, Boston, Peterborough and Cambridge.

Dr Julian Wright, the EA's principal officer for climate change, said: "I and the Environment Agency are convinced climate change is real, climate change is happening and climate change is serious. It is a problem but it's a problem we can do something about."

Dr Wright said the EA expected mean temperatures in the Fens to rise by up to a degree by the 2020s. It predicts summer rainfall to decrease by 20 per cent and winter rain to increase by 10 per cent in the same period.

Sea levels around our coasts are expected to rise by up to 15cm while storm surges, like the one which caused the 1953 floods, will become more frequent.

Dr Wright said it was essential for mankind to reduce its carbon footprint, to avoid the Doomsday scenario of sea level rises of about a metre and a 60 per cent reduction in summer rainfall by the end of the current century, which could see many areas of the Fens subjected to drought and tidal flooding.

Elizabeth Raneleigh, from the Government's Farming and Wildife Advisory Group, said almost half of Britain's most productive farmland was in the Fens.

She added future threats to farming from global warming included water shortages, storms and flood damage, drought, new pests and diseases and seasonal change.

"There are opportunities farmers see as well," she said. "With a longer growing season and opportunities to plant crops earlier, they can get better yields and there are new crops they will be able to grow like sunflowers, maize and even grapes."

The Fens, with their predominantly peaty soil are the only area of land in the UK which emits carbon dioxide, one of the so-called greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

"Ploughing produces CO2 , so if farmers use reduced-tillage systems this can help to mitigate global warming," said Mrs Raneleigh.

"Farmers have been quite excited about growing biofuels, but even if all our land went over to producing diesel, it would barely touch the energy we use, but there is the possibility of farmers producing the energy they use themselves."

Mrs Ranleigh added the farm of the future could be the focal point of rural communities' efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

"I would like to think of the farm of the future being the local centre," she said. "Every farm could have things like turbines, solar panels and wood burners not just for themselves but for the whole community."

David Thomas, chief engineer for the Middle Level Commissioners, said he was responsible for draining 70,000 hectares of land, where there were 223,000 properties, parts of which were up to three metres below mean sea level, though an exceptional tide could leave parts of the Fens six metres below sea level.

Mr Thomas said the whole area, drained by a series of interconnecting land drains, lodes and main drains, was drained by the pumping station on the Middle Level Drain at St Germans, which is nearing the end of its working life.

"That whole area is solely protected by that pumping station," he said. "In 1998, the system was severely tested and running at full capacity round the clock for three days."

Mr Thomas said the 1998 storm had convinced the commissioners a new station was needed and work was now under way on a new £38million station which would be the second biggest in Europe.

When it comes on stream in two years' time, it will be able to pump 100 tonnes of water a second against the tide.

Andrew Brown, climate change manager with Anglian Water, said its predictions agreed with those of the EA. He said 500,000 new homes were due to be built in what was already one of the driest regions in Britain by 2021.

"We're already using climate change scenarios in our water resource forecasting and in the period 2005 to 2030 the latest forecast unfortunately shows a marginal deficit," he said.

"In that 25-year period we're going to see a marginal deficit unless we invest and make a few changes."

He added new reservoirs, to store extra rain which fell during the winter, would be needed.

At the end of the meeting, organised by the EA and Diocese of Ely, delegates completed questionnaires on where they believed future priorities lay in adapting to our changing climate.

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