Fens face climate change battle

The Fens are more at risk from climate change than any other part of England, a conference heard yesterday.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.

The Fens are more at risk from climate change than any other part of England, a conference heard yesterday.

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.

Julian Wright, the agency's principal officer for climate change, said: "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 agency expected mean temperatures in the Fens to rise by up to a degree by the 2020s, and summer rainfall to decrease by 20pc and winter rain to increase by 10pc.

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 60pc reduction in summer rainfall by the end of the century, which could see many areas of the Fens subjected to drought and tidal flooding.

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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 said 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 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 biodiesel, it would barely touch the energy we use. But there is the possibility of farmers producing the energy they use themselves."

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

"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 3m below mean sea level, though an exceptional tide could leave parts of the Fens 6m 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 £38m 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.