Global warming, bird flu, nuclear disaster … is nowhere in Britain safe for human habitation? Ross Clark seeks security in tomorrow’s world
Buying a house in the right place used to be a relatively simple task of looking near a Tube station and in the catchment area of a good school. But that was before we started worrying about global warming and other environmental problems. Now – assuming you want to avoid storm, tempest and earthquake – it is a good deal tougher.
Where to start? A fortnight ago, the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) published its fourth assessment report – the most comprehensive forecast yet of the changes we can expect to see in the earth’s climate by the end of the century. The 2,500 scientists who contributed to the report concluded that the most likely scenario is for a 4C rise in temperature by 2100. As a temperate country, Britain is likely to come off relatively lightly, but that will be of little consolation if your dream home disappears beneath the waves. Many of the predicted changes are already worrying householders – the effects of drought and floods, for example. And now there’s bird flu, too.
The rise in sea levels, as it happens, is just about the least frightening part of the forecast. In contrast to the popular idea of biblical floods, the IPCC foresees that levels will rise by half a metre by 2100. This is not enough to force the evacuation of central London, or even of the Fens, large parts of which already lie beneath a metre below sea level but are protected by sturdy embankments and drainage pumps. It will, however, increase the risk of storm surges, such as that of 1953 which killed 300 people and flooded 280 square miles around the East Anglian coast and in the Thames Estuary. That was caused by a tide three metres higher than normal – an extra half-metre will make a recurrence rather more common. Needless to say, in a typical piece of joined-up government, much of the new housing planned for the SouthEast has been earmarked for some of the most vulnerable areas in the Thames Estuary.
Higher sea levels will also speed coastal erosion – making any property along the mud cliffs of Norfolk, Suffolk, Dorset and the Isle of Wight a hazardous business. But that isn’t all: last year’s Stern Report, commissioned by the Government to study the economic effects of climate change, warned that longer periods of dry weather will increase the risk of subsidence. Areas most at risk are on the claylands of southeast England – covering most of Greater London (the worst subsidence blackspot being Harrow), the east coast of East Anglia, the Solent and much of Kent and Sussex.
Flooding is one thing; but what about drought? The Stern Report warned of longer periods of dry, as well as wet, weather. Whether or not these fears are justified, water supply is already struggling the keep up with demand. Last year the Environment Agency published a list of what it calls areas of “water stress”, where residents face acute shortages in the near future. Top of the list were Folkestone and Dover, though most of the South-East also made the list.
The Stern Report also warned of the risk of death from heatwave. In general, the rises in temperature will merely give Britain the climate presently enjoyed by the South of France (where many Britons happily spend their summer holidays). But the warming effect will be exaggerated in Greater London, which behaves as a “heat island” – warming up much more in hot weather than the surrounding countryside due to buildings and vehicle exhausts. If global
temperatures rise by 3C, Londoners can expect temperatures to rise by 7C. In other words, the peak temperature of 37C measured in London in the heatwave of 2003 would be 44C by 2100 – highly dangerous to the old and the very young without air conditioning.
There is also the matter of tornadoes. It is not clear that global warming will cause an increase in these phenomena, yet Birmingham in 2005, and north-west London in 2005, suffered serious structural damage from them. According to the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, Britain suffers 35 to 40 tornadoes a year, mostly in the South-East, the Midlands and East Anglia. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are low-risk, although a tornado has been suggested as the cause of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879.
So far, there seems to be one message for anyone worried about the effects of climate change: get out of the South-East – and fast. Or maybe not so fast. Last week’s outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk has alerted us to the dangers posed by poultry farms. Were a human form of the H5N1 virus to develop, the Government calculated in 2005, it could kill up to 700,000 Britons. Not surprisingly, Bernard Matthews’s Norfolk is a black spot for poultry. But don’t think you can get away from it all just by fleeing west of the A1: maps of poultry density compiled by Defra show large concentrations of farms in the West Midlands, the South-West and along the South Coast. In fact, you have to move to Wales, Cumbria or Scotland to be truly beyond reach of a chicken’s sneeze.
But even if you avoid bird flu, you might still be running the risk of contracting lung cancer. Maps plotted for the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (www.naei.org. uk) for various air pollutants including nitrous oxides (emitted by car exhausts), PM10s (soot particles emitted by diesel engines) and heavy metals show, not surprisingly, that all urban areas are emission hotspots. But the maps also show that few country areas can claim to have truly fresh air, except possibly the Highlands of Scotland – and even then there are significant levels of arsenic and cadmium drifting on the breeze.
What the Government’s map doesn’t show is possible fallout from a nuclear disaster. While nuclear power in Britain has an impressive safety record, it would be rash to assume that the industry can escape a disaster for ever. And if it did happen, the economic consequences in a tightly packed country like Britain could be catastrophic. If, for example, the Oldbury nuclear power station suffered an accident on the scale of that of Chernobyl – around which was imposed a 30 kilometre total exclusion zone – it would mean the evacuation of Bristol and its 400,000 inhabitants.
The pressure group no2nuclear power (www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk) has devised an interactive map that superimposes the map of fallout from Chernobyl from each of Britain’s nine active nuclear sites. The result is that there is barely a square inch of the British mainland that does not risk fall-out in the range one to five curies per km - a level of contamination which would require strict radiological control. The only places far enough away from nuclear power stations not to worry are Orkney and Shetland.
Given that Shetland has been compromised by the oil industry – a tanker came to grief just off the islands in 1992 – that perhaps leaves the chronically worried with only one place to live: Orkneys. Barring nuclear war, there is virtually nothing to fear at the Old St Nicholas Manse, on East Holm, Orkney, a four-bedroom house with one acre of walled gardens, for sale through Drever and Heddle (01856 872216) for £419,000. Indeed, the only thing to keep you awake at night are the seals, which have established a colony 150 metres from the house.
And the worst place to live, from an environmental point of view? Inevitably, central London shows up as a blackspot. But, perhaps more surprisingly, it is run a close second by the east Suffolk coast. If you are a house-hunter of a nervous disposition, that has just about everything to make you faint: crumbling cliffs and lowlying estuaries, bird flu, a nuclear power station, water shortages and shrinkable clay to disturb your foundations. Other than that, it is jolly nice – which is why one buyer recently paid £955,000 for a house atop the crumbling cliffs at Thorpeness, in the shadow of the white dome of Sizewell nuclear power station. It underlines how much we really worry about environmental Armageddon.