That was '97, another year of rising heat

1997 will be England's third warmest year since temperature records began more than three centuries ago. Man-made global warming can already be seen in temperature trends for the entire globe. Now, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, climatologists are trying to establish whether it has begun in Britain.

Three of the five warmest years documented in the Meteorological Office's data on central England temperatures are post-1988. 1990 is the record- holder, with an average of 10.63C.

Yesterday, the Met Office said that with the final day of 1997 forecast to be mild, this year would end up in third place at 10.57C. After that comes 1989, then 1959.

Scientists at the Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction are also now certain that 1997 will prove to be the warmest year for the oceans and continents of the entire planet, based on global temperature records from ship and land-based weather stations going back more than 130 years.

"What we're seeing is a parallel between the global records and those for England," said Geoff Jenkins, head of climate prediction at the centre. He said it was six months into a study on whether the warming of Britain was also the result of a build-up of heat trapping pollutants in the atmosphere.

The central England temperature record goes back to 1659 and is the oldest in the world. It is an amalgamation of several long-running temperature measurements from Hertfordshire, the Malvern Hills and locations near Manchester and Blackpool.

In its first two centuries, many of the records were kept by clergymen and landed gentry with an interest in science.

August, February and March had the most exceptional warmth over the past year. Despite the odd cold-snap, the autumn has been on the mild side and so has December.

The three months of last winter, which the Met Office counts as December, January and February, were actually slightly colder than usual: 0.2C below the long term average for this period.

As for rainfall, this past year has been drier than average in England and Wales but not exceptionally so. With just one final day of data missing from 1997, the Met Office says 94 per cent of average rainfall will have descended. That puts 1997 nowhere near the top 10 driest years in a precipitation record going back over 250 years, and barely in the top 100.

Climate and weather have been the environmental bad news of 1997. Three weeks ago, in Kyoto, rich countries agreed they would cut their annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2 per cent off their 1990 level. But that reduction will, it seems, be more than out-weighed by increases from industrialised countries in the south such as India, China, Indonesia and Brazil.