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This warm autumn is a warning: Britain’s seasons are changing for good | Sophie Pavelle

My fingers should be numb. My breath should rise in clouds. I want leaves to crunch and snap beneath my feet. I want to have to pull my coat tightly around me, to ram a hat low over my ears. I expect to be locking horns with the thermostat. But instead I find myself overheating. Is this the new November?

Following soaring temperatures across Britain throughout 2022 and a distinct lack of rain, we knew better than to expect our weather to resume its familiar winter course. An African plume of hot air whipping off the tropics, the Azores and Cape Verde has lifted London’s temperatures 8C above average. Porthmadog, north Wales, had a high of 21.2C on Remembrance Sunday. And we’re still pursuing a limit on global temperature rise of 1.5C.

Everyone is talking about it. Yet we can only take off layers of clothing so many times before we see the absurdity of it all. Halloween, Bonfire Night, Remembrance Sunday, the opening of the Christmas markets – key moments in the west’s autumn and winter calendar – are clinging on to thawing nostalgia. But the people in power who are supposed to respond to this crisis aren’t listening.

As I write in a T-shirt, I’m tense. Not from cold, but because I’ve seen more bees in the past 10 days than I did in May. Primroses, a reliable indicator of early spring, are blooming on the verge. Despite the south-east swimming in its wettest first week of November on record, much of the UK remains gripped by drought. Thames Water will maintain its temporary hosepipe ban until 2023, joining areas in Yorkshire and Cornwall in a hangover from the summer. Reservoirs in south-west England are at their lowest levels in more than 130 years.

Elsewhere, other countries are suffering more urgent consequences. Floods in Pakistan have claimed more than 1,500 lives. Somalia is on the brink of famine, in the grip of its most severe drought in living memory. You don’t have to know anything at all about nature to know it is failing.

Vehicles stranded in floodwaters of the River Adur, West Sussex, 17 November 2022.
Vehicles stranded in floodwaters of the River Adur, West Sussex, 17 November 2022. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

I desperately want to blame the climate crisis. Yet, in this case, scientists are advising that despite it being a convenient adversary, we would be wise not to link every anomalous weather event with global heating. Meteorologists say the unseasonal warm air is not an isolated event for the UK.

Usually, the jet stream follows a west-to-east path across the Atlantic and Europe. A conveyor belt of furious winds, it meanders like a river. Occasionally, atmospheric changes cause it to spill its banks. The UK, a temperate archipelago in the northern hemisphere, can be subjected to swings between the colder and warmer sides of the stream. The weather we have been experiencing this month is what happens when the jet stream flexes into a U, running south to north.

Should I be relieved? “Freak weather event” implies rarity. A fluke, even. A forgivable blunder? If only. Because, despite its weak link to this particular African plume, the human-induced climate crisis will normalise the abnormal. Greenhouse gases pushing global temperatures more than 1.1C above pre-industrial levels will make those jet-stream wanderings less random, and more frequent. This November is warming us up for a redefining of the seasons in the UK. A forecast of the planet’s life expectancy.

I think of water. Already polluted and deteriorating, what will warmer winters do to British rivers? How will endangered, keystone species such as Atlantic salmon ever recover if their eggs incubate in balmy toxic algal blooms, instead of cold, clean fresh water? And how will oceans, woodlands, grasslands and uplands ever regenerate at scale if the climate crisis causes the clock to consistently chime ahead of the season?

Despite struggling to remember what “normal” feels like for our seasons, I suppose I am grieving for it. Denial, anger, reasoning, depression and acceptance are an opportunity for us to adapt to a new reality. But I am worried we are stuck in the bargaining rut. Trading with the planet while still trying to cut ourselves the best deal.

According to the UN, the planet’s eight hottest years have all occurred in the eight years since 2016. As I feel the breeze through my open office window, I believe it. But as Cop27 draws to a close, the solutions are on the table. All we can do is hope they are acted upon with the urgency the situation demands.

Temperatures are poised to drop over the next few days. We are told to expect more typical November weather, but that is not permission to relax: it’s an instruction to prepare, to ready our perspective, if anything. I am asking you to notice.

  • Sophie Pavelle is the communications coordinator for Beaver Trust, an ambassador for the Wildlife Trusts, and sits on the RSPB England advisory committee


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