We brought all of our rain gear. Jackets, pants, boots. A cover for my backpack. Those super-tough zip-lock bags for protecting odds and ends in case you get stuck in a deluge. The last thing I really expected when our flight landed at Shannon Airport on the 4th of July in the southwest of Ireland was sunshine and warm weather. That’s not the image of Ireland I had preserved in my memory.
Coming from Colorado, we were hoping for some cooler, wetter weather. Certainly, it was cooler, 75 F, not 95 F. From the moment I stepped off onto the tarmac (because Shannon airport is one of those places where you still have to walk across the tarmac) I could feel that coastal dampness that seeps into my pores every time I get near a body of water. My Colorado skin is like a dry sponge – greedy for moisture wherever it can find it. But the blue sky was a surprise.
The Burren in Drought
We started our two-week Irish journey with a drive deep into the region known as The Burren. The Burren, in Irish, is written as An Bhoireann, and means ‘place of stone.’ I’ve wanted to visit it since I passed through it on a bus on my first trip to Ireland 28 years ago – I was fascinated by this barren, rocky land. This time, I got my first glimpse of The Burren from above as we made our final approach to Shannon airport. It twisted below us like a large piece of gray taffy. Massive swirls of glacially-carved limestone pavement, bordered by a quilt of green, gold and brown fields marked by hedgerows and stones.
Driving north from Shannon airport, I marveled at all the dry grass lining the sides of the roads. The county of Clare in western Ireland was probably one of the most deeply impacted by drought this summer. By the time we arrived in July, there had been more than two weeks without any rainfall. This was enough to close pubs and shut off the water in some villages. The coastal village of Fanore is a quiet place where white-washed buildings stand out against the rocky backdrop of the Burren. The village boasts a calm, sandy beach, and views across blue waters to the Aran Islands on clear days. We stopped at a small shop for some snacks and bottled water, and marveled at the lack of tourists. Then we saw this sign on the door of a pub.
The weather in the past year has been especially hard on farmers in this region. Last year, there was an exceptionally wet summer. A very snowy winter kept livestock indoors. And now, with no fresh grass, farmers are again having to import fodder to keep their stocks alive.
What’s sad, and difficult for some people to accept, is that this is a story that is playing out around the world – the weather, itself, may vary, but the story is the same (just last week south of Greeley, a passing severe hailstorm destroyed a crop of onions. I thought about that loss as the smell of onions drifted through town.) Weather extremes are a symptom of climate change. While scientists are unable to make the connection between a single event and global warming (statistically, you can’t do it), the increase in frequency of these events is a clear signal. Ireland is expected to be one of the places that will experience an increase in drought frequency as the world warms an average of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century – if not sooner.
It’s been said that the future of human civilization will focus on fresh water: who has it, who doesn’t, and how we distribute it. It’s clear that the future has already arrived. We saw this sign outside a pub in Ballyvaughan, the next town along the road from Fanore. Ballyvaughan is clearly suffering from the drought as well, but there were a lot more tourists there.
Across the Hot Limestone Pavement at Burren National Park
What many people don’t understand is that climate change is not new. (What’s new is climate change – global warming, specifically – caused by human activity.) The Burren, itself, is the product of climate change over the eons. As I walked across the limestone, I could see the evidence of many millions of years of climate change under my feet. At Burren National Park, we hiked up one of those twisted limestone slabs we saw from our airplane – Mullaghmore Mountain.
The rocks at Mullaghmore were deposited in a shallow sea, under a hot tropical sun more than 350 million years ago, when Ireland was situated at a much more tropical location. You can even see the remnants of a Devonian coral reef as you hop over the rocks – formations of leafy corals and scattered bivalves.
Over the eons, these slabs of limestone were tilted and twisted and buried in sediments, then uncovered again by the advance and retreat of massive glaciers over the past million years. Now, they sit under a hot high-latitude sun, in a warming world. Dissolution from acidic rainfall has created pit marks on the surfaces of these limestone pavements – a process that will likely accelerate in the coming years.
We passed dry ferns and a low lake that helped me clearly imagine the tropical reef where this landscape formed. It can be a bit of mind-twisting contrast: tropical reef, glacial carved rock, and hot, sunny, dry Irish weather.
Tripping up on Climate at the Cliffs of Moher
At it’s western edge, the Burren drops off dramatically in the Atlantic. This is the place most tourists visit, and if you’ve seen any travel ads for Ireland, they probably featured a view of the Cliffs of Moher. Visiting on a sunny summer day can be a madhouse. We waited until late afternoon and found we were able to easily find a parking spot (after paying a fee of €8 per person at the entrance gate!) If it’s clear enough to see the cliffs, it’s definitely worth the visit, though.
Almost as interesting as the cliffs themselves are the many people who walk along them who don’t fully understand the role gravity plays in shaping these cliffs. Once you get past the paved pathways near the visitor’s center, there’s a trail that winds it’s way along the edge of the cliffs. For those of us less trusting of what may feel like solid ground along the cliff edge, there is a nice barrier between the trail and the cliff edge. Most people, however, were much more trusting of the cliffs than we were.
The Cliffs of Moher Visiter Center (sorry, it’s called the Visitor ‘Experience’) is carved right into the hillside above the cliffs. It looks like it could have been an old World War II bunker – in the same style as some I’ve visited along coastal California. But I don’t think it is. This place was carved into the hillside to preserve, as best it could, the natural landscape. That alone makes it worth a stop. Inside, there are a range of interactive exhibits covering the history of the Cliffs, local coastal ecology, geology of the Burren, and climate.
For the most part, these exhibits are fairly well done. Except, somehow, the idea that global warming can lead to a new ice age worked it’s way into the climate exhibit.
The above photos come from a digital animation of long term climate change at the cliffs. Just so it’s clear, it states:
Long term, weather at the Cliffs of Moher could be dramatically affected by global warming. Due to rising temperatures, the polar ice caps have been melting over the past 25 years. The extra melt water could affect the deep and surface ocean currents, which keep Ireland mild, and could even trigger an Ice Age at the Cliffs.
Arrrrgh! No! This sounds like it’s taken right from the 2004 climate disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. There are so many things wrong with that last statement, it would take me another blog post to go into detail. Suffice it to say, warming can alter ocean currents. That alteration in the North Atlantic will likely do no more than mitigate some warming in that region for a short time. And global warming still has the effect of altering precipitation patterns (i.e., leading to drought), even if regional warming becomes slower for a time. Ireland will not experience another ice age as long as human activity continues to influence climate.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so picky. I’ve started to think lately that perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if people don’t understand exactly what causes climate change – as long as they understand that it’s happening and that it will have irrevocable impacts on our society, economy, political structures, and way of life. But this exhibit really gnaws at me because it reinforces an old myth that global warming will lead to the next ice age. And that particular myth can lead people to discount the effects of global warming. This does a disservice to us all.
The Irish heatwave of 2018 was waning by the end of our visit in mid July – we actually pull out the rain gear on a couple of days! But I hear that it’s been waxing and waning since we left and that water shortages will continue to be a challenge. Welcome to the 21st century.