Things hotting up

Things hotting up

In the two-part investigation Dave Broom examines the potential effects of global warming on the scotch whisky industry. Part 1 looks at the potential scenario for whisky production by the end of the century

News | 25 Sep 2007 | Issue 66 | By Dave Broom

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The world is heating up. Carbon levels in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. The 20th century was the warmest in the last millennium and the 1990s was the warmest decade for the previous 100 years. In the United Kingdom, we witnessed the warmest weather since records began in 1660. How then does this global phenomenon affect the UK, Scotland and the whisky industry? The picture of the UK in 2080 painted by the UKCIP02 report shows a country which has got progressively warmer with annual temperatures between 2.5ºC and 4ºC warmer than today, with northern Scotland warming the least and the southeast of England rising the most. The difference between seasons is more dramatic than it is today. Summers have become increasingly hot (England and Wales by up to 4.5ºC, Scotland by between 3º - 3.5ºC) Although this has resulted in a fall in annual precipitation by up to 10 per cent across the country, winters have got wetter and rain is falling in more intense bursts. Snowfalls have been reduced to below 70 per cent of today’s levels, in Scotland they have fallen by 66 per cent. In addition, coastal waters have warmed and the sea level has risen by 30cm. This, coupled with more storms has increased incidences of flooding. Though the effects are at their most extreme in the south-east of England, Scotland has not escaped. The east coast will also see the most significant rise in summer temperatures. Though the west coast will remain the wettest part of the country, the highest percentage increase will be seen in the east which could result in more winter flooding and, in a worst case scenario, a shift in river courses and increased coastal erosion. Dr Toby Sherwin is reader in physical oceanography at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban. “The UK’s precipitation is set by the Atlantic, but it is very difficult to predict how storm tracks will pass over the Atlantic. There is an assumption that a warmer sea will result in greater evaporation, thereby putting more water in the atmosphere – particularly around the equator – which in turn will result in more precipitation. “It is more difficult to predict the impact of higher sea temperatures and rising sea levels. There has been a rise of 1ºCin the temperature of the Scottish coastal waters over a decade, (a big increase) which we think is because of a change in the patterns of circulation in the Atlantic. In addition sea levels are rising.” Although a rise of 30cm has been predicted for the UK by 2080, Scotland has its own peculiarities which need to be taken into account, as Dr Jim Hansom of Glasgow University’s Department of Geographical and Earth Science explains. “The level of sea level rise in Scotland is dependent on what happened to the country during the last two ice ages . Draw a circle with Rannoch Moor at its centre and its outer limit passing through the Mull of Galloway, Edinburgh, Speyside, the Dornoch Firth, then through Skye, Islay and back to Galloway. The centre was where the ice was thickest and here the land is still rising. The outer limit is where the ice was at its thinnest and any uplift has been replaced by subsidence so that by the time you reach the Northern Isles or the Western Isles the land is sinking. Although the relative sea level rise will vary form place to place because of this, in simple terms, the sea is rising and the islands are sinking. For these peripheral areas it’s a double whammy.” Although a rise of a few centimeters hardly seems the stuff of nightmares, the bigger picture is worrying. “You have to remember is that any sea level rise will be exacerbated by storm surges,” Hansom adds, “and if the ocean is warming there is a chance that storms will become more severe and there is some evidence that this is already happening.” There is a further alternative scenario which involves the Greenland ice sheet melting which would not only raise sea levels but put more fresh water into the Arctic ocean which could result in the shutting down of the North Atlantic Drift “This is what caused glaciers to form in Loch Lomond during the last Ice Age,” said Hansom, “and the evidence is when it happened it happened quickly. If it happens this could means that the UK gets colder rather than warmer, making the temperature closer to Russia or Labrador, with sea ice forming in winter.” However, although a slowing of the NAD has been factored into the UKCIP02 scenarios it is thought unlikely that it will close down totally.WHISKY
Climate change will impact on every industry, but whisky is an interesting case dependent as it is on agriculture, water and weather.BARLEY
One result of warmer summers is that the thermal growing season is estimated to be extended to 60 days in Scotland. Dr Mike Rivington is researcher in Land-Use Systems Modelling at Aberdeen’s Macaulay Institute. He and his colleagues have run a computer simulation to assess what may happen to barley cultivation in Scotland: “It is one of those things that, potentially, climate change could be beneficial to some aspects of Scottish agriculture. The indications are that barley will be OK,” he says. “That said, the model doesn’t take into account pests and pathogens or the wider effects of warming, so on one hand while potential yield could be as good as today or even better, climate change itself may still have a serious impact.” The heavy winter rains predicted for Scotland’s main barley growing areas could affect winter grown crops while the increase in intense rainfall will also have an impact.The industry has always adopted a belt and braces policy for barley and will also therefore need to take into account the more dramatic changes in climate predicted for East Anglia which, it is predicted, will be more severely affected by summer droughts and rising temperature.Rivington didn’t feel that flooding would affect the main barley growing areas and believed that the change in climate could bring currently marginal hill areas into production.What they grow however will have changed.His research leads him to conclude that the whisky industry will need to develop new strains of barley to cope with the change in climatic conditions – and that farmers will have to adjust in order to farm them. “Growing successful malting barley is down to the skill of the farmers themselves in regard to the timing and application of fertilisers and it may take some skill to adjust how best to do it with the new varieties which could be needed.” The industry of course is also dependent on buying cereals from around the world for grain production. Quite what the future holds for this trade, Rivington felt, was harder to forecast. “Trying to predict the global grain production is very difficult. Some will benefit, and others will lose out. There are attendant issues such a global population increase, the effects of climate change and governments determining where food resources are best directed. It could be that a country such as Argentina has to ask itself whether it is justifiable to send grain to Europe when it might be needed for food at home.”

Any discussion with a distiller in the past few years will eventually have touched on how water supplies have become increasingly problematic. Springs have been drying up in summer, burns and lochs have been lower – partly the result of less winter snowfall as well as drier summer conditions. “The fact that less snow is predicted will result in the April thaws which traditionally have brought rivers into full spate being less prevalent,” says Sherwin.“Even if winter precipitation is heavier, the summer warming will have its own knock-on effect. River temperatures in summer will definitely be warmer because the atmosphere will be warmer, and the river levels will also be lower. This may also be the case in spring.” This has its own impact on whisky production. Not only will less water be available, but higher river temperatures may mean that distilleries are effectively forbidden from using the water in the first place.The Scottish Environment Protection Agency [SEPA] sets strict upper limits on the temperature of water which is allowed to be returned to a watercourse after being used in a distillery. Increasingly, distilleries in Speyside are finding that the temperature of the water which they are taking from the river is already higher than this level, meaning that they cannot use it. Climate change seems likely to exacerbate this problem.The temperature of condensing water is also vital in the creation of specific flavour characters. (A heavy distillate character for example needs high volumes of very cold water). It is conceivable that distilleries which are heavily dependent on this may struggle in the future. One way around both problems could be to install water cooling plants, but that would use energy.Spirit character could also be affected by any change in relative humidity as this will have an impact on maturation. Although figures suggest Scotland will be less affected by a rise in humidity than south east England should the maturation model begin to resemble that of Cognac then there will be an impact on mature spirit character.SEA LEVELS
A further issue revolves around the rise in sea levels. As we have seen the rise will not be the same across Scotland and though even a 30cm rise may seem insignificant, this figure does not does not take into account increased wave height (already noted in the past few years), the higher incidence of storms and greater risk of storm surge (the result of low atmospheric pressure + strong winds; or a storm coinciding with high tide).UKCIP02 warns that by 2050 the current 100 year high-water flood level will be reached every 20 to 40 years depending on location.This will put the ‘soft coast’ (dunes, machair, estuaries) at risk from flooding, increased coastal erosion and estuary realignment. “We expect to see a mean sea level rise and stronger winter winds, therefore there will be a higher incidence of storms,” says Dr Toby Sherwin. “Distilleries should be worried about the highest tide levels which they can cope with, because these incidents will become more frequent and the sea will be above the level predicted.” So who is most at risk? “Everyone on the coast, to a greater or lesser extent,” says Dr Jim Hansom. “Though there are not many distilleries built at sea level there is the issue of both flooding and erosion for those that are lower than, say 3m above sea level. Distilleries on Islay, Jura and Skye fall into this category, with both main buildings and bonded warehouses lying at or below this altitude.

Some of these, such as Bunnahabhain, built on a gravelly beach will have more of a problem than a distillery built on a rocky foreshore. If there are more storms there will be more coastal erosion in exposed sites but also a buildup of silt and sediment in sheltered inlets and estuaries — Lochindaal for example — which could silt up.” (Quite how Islay would get its oil if this happens is worth considering). “This build-up of silt could cause flooding problems for distilleries close to estuaries — Bladnoch for example,” he continues. “Everything on Islay will be affected in some way. In fact, any coastal distillery will see an impact to some extent. “Speyside won’t be affected by a sea level rise directly unless bonded warehouses or a distillery lies at the 3m level, but any area close to sea level and on any of the flood plains of the rivers will see a higher incidence of flooding as the (enlarged) rivers will back up because of the higher sea level and increased storms.” On this reading, the floods which affect lowlying distilleries such as Glen Moray will become a normal occurrence, while any building on flood plains or low-lying coastal areas could be affected.All of the above are predictions and though scientists are now increasingly expert at analysing data, as Mike Rivington says: “There remain so many unknowns. On one hand you have to be optimistic that we are doing something, but I still get the jitters!” Global warming affects every aspect of our lives. Even if drastic action was taken now, it would not reverse the process. Yet action is needed. In the next issue we will examine what the industry is doing about finding solutions to the potential impacts outlined here as well as reducing its own carbon footprint.All figures unless otherwise stated from UKCIP02 The UKCIP models give four different scenarios.Low Emissions [LE], Medium-Low [ML], Medium- High [MH] and High Emissions [HE] LE assumes that global emissions of Co2 will fall below today’s levels. This will still result in global warming at a rate of four times what was experienced during the 20th century. HE assumes an increase of four times today’s levels, meaning the future warming rate will be twice as rapid as it is today. For the purposes of this article I have followed guidance from the scientists spoken to and used MH figures.Scotland’s landscape has been crafted by the effects of ice and the last significant incidence was the Loch Lomond Readvance which occurred between 12,900 and 11,500 years ago.Glaciers which had virtually disappeared 1,000 years earlier reappeared as the North Atlantic drift shut down. The major ice field sat over the western highlands with its centre in Rannoch Moor. The dome of ice pressed down on the land and where the ice was thickest was where the earth’s crust was most heavily compressed.When the ice melted so the land began to rise slowly. The rebound has been completed on the outer edges of the ice field, while Rannoch Moor is still rising. Any sea level rise has to be measured against this localised rising.The North Atlantic Drift works like a giant conveyor belt. As the warm waters move north and reach Labrador and the Greenland Sea so the surface cools. This causes an increase in salinity and the cool water sinks and flows south. In turn, this pushes warm water to the north. Scientists believe that an increase in fresh water has further reduced the salinity of the water thereby slowing the circulation. A collapse of the Greenland ice cap could cause the NAD to switch off.
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