'Irreversible' global warming claims its first victims of the New Year

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A birdseed factory in Shropshire, a holy lake in China, Baltic Sea fish and new-born hedgehogs have emerged as the first tangible victims of climate change in the year which forecasters predicted this week would be the warmest on record.

The CJ Wild Bird Foods company near Shrewsbury has announced that the demand for its products has all but disappeared, because the mild winter had maintained an alternative supply of berries for finches, tits and other species. Some species, such as the dunlin and purple sandpiper, are disappearing from Britain as they can find enough warmth in Scandinavia. The company, which said fears of bird flu has also discouraged the public from setting up bird feeders, has laid off 22 workers.

The warmer environment is also contributing to the gradual disappearance of the vast Lake Qinghai, a holy site for Tibetans in the remote western province of Qinghai. Despite a Chinese government pledge of £442m to stop the lake shrinking, it will have vanished in two centuries, according to a report by the China Geological Survey Bureau (CGSB). Glaciers on the nearby Qinghai-Tibet plateau have also shrunk by 131.4 sq km annually in the past 30 years. "What that means is that an area of glacier equivalent to twice the size of the Beijing downtown area disappears every year," said the CGSB. A further 13,000 sq km of glacier - nearly 28 per cent of the total glacier area - will disappear by 2050 if no protective measures are taken.

These disparate indicators of the effects of a changing climate surfaced at the end of a week in which Sir John Houghton, director general of the UK's Met Office, told a farming conference in Oxford that climate change was now irreversible. The Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, said yesterday that Britons would have to change every aspect of their lives if they are to tackle climate change. In an interview with the children's newspaper First News, Mr Miliband admitted that people had been "short-sighted" in tackling environmental problems.

More evidence of the consequences of failure arrived yesterday from conservation groups who reported that climate change was causing the deaths of hundreds of baby hedgehogs, born out of season. Confused by the milder autumn months, the creatures are continuing to breed rather than hibernate. This is causing the death of the young who need to grow before they hibernate. Those born in late autumn are finding less food and, rather than hibernate, find themselves at the mercy of cold weather. More than 70 ailing young have been handed in to a centre at Fife, in eastern Scotland, and the Withington Hedgehog Care Trust in Manchester has had a similar experience.

An indication of the effects of climate change on fish has also arrived this week, from a team of German scientists who warned that rising sea temperatures were killing off the eelpout. The fish, which lives in the North and Baltic seas, has been hit by warmer summers, which have increased its need for oxygen at the same time as the water's oxygen levels have dropped. The researchers' studies of the fish's biology showed the first thing to suffer as temperatures rise beyond 17°C was its oxygen supply.

Australia is engaged in its own climate war, with the pace of global warming faster across the country than in other parts of the world, the country's Bureau of Meteorology said. Half of the country was desperate for water and the other half was awash with a year's rainfall for the entire continent. "Most scientists agree this is part of an enhanced greenhouse effect," said the bureau's senior climatologist, Neil Plummer.