Episode 7: Britain's Burning Future
Dr Mark Hardiman looks at the soaring temperatures on the Costa del Portsmouth and says climate change could mean long, hot summers are the norm in the UK. With this comes a greater risk of forest fires in our damp nation. So what does this mean for our future homes and lifestyles? He explains the complex history of fire ecology and our changing landscape in the UK, as well as how humans and fire have always co-existed.
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People often think the climate changes can happen in the future, but we're already living through it. It hasn't started now. It's been going on for a long time. You know, throughout my lifetime. Throughout your lifetimes.
Anna Rose: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. In Life Solved, we're asking the big questions about our world, from politics to technology, our bodies and our environments. We've snatched interviews with researchers who are challenging existing ideas and seeking new ways of solving the world's problems. This time, Britain is burning. In our children's lives, the world will become a different place.
Mark Hardiman: The world around us will change in the next 50 years, definitely within our lifetimes. Over the next 100 years.
Anna Rose: Change happens, but it's happening faster.
Mark Hardiman: We tend to find where we get abrupt climatic change, which we might expect over the next 50 100 years, you tend to get peaks in fire.
Anna Rose: What does it mean for life as we know it? John Worsey spoke to Dr Mark Hardiman.
Mark Hardiman: We've been changing landscape for a long time as humans. It's not just since the industrial revolution. It's been happening a long, long time.
Anna Rose: When John met with Dr Mark Hardiman to record this chat, Portsmouth had just spent the weekend basking in 30-degree heat. The parks and coastline here saw a rush of heat seekers all wanting to make the most of this Mediterranean moment. But if Mark's research is anything to go by, we had better start getting used to the Costa del Portsmouth.
Mark Hardiman: By 2040, that would be a normal day in summer. It won't be a heatwave that will be a normal day. So that's, you know, that's not that far away, really. That's 20 years down the road. People often think that climate change is going to happen in the future, but we're already living through it. It hasn't started now. It's been going on for a long time and throughout my lifetime. Throughout all of our lifetimes. So yes, it's something we're living with. The problem with climate change, though, is that I think the bad news, unfortunately, might come by the time it's too late to do much about it.
Anna Rose: Mark is senior lecturer in the School of Environment, Geography and Geosciences. Day to day, he's intrigued by our changing climate and what it means for the lives of those who come after us. In recent years, the news headlines have been awash with terrifying images of countries on fire, from Australia's 2019 wildfires to the Brazilian rainforests, Madagascar and many more lesser reported events. And fire goes hand in hand with human activity, both as a direct result and if the changes that snowball – to use an awkward term – in terms of climate, weather and atmosphere. Yet, however shocking, these scenes of faraway places in flames might be, it always seems a little distant from our own doorstep. That's why Mark's research is so remarkable. He's urging us to recognise that our gentle British climate is far from immune to change.
Mark Hardiman: The world around us will change in the next 50 years. Definitely within our lifetimes. Over the next hundred years, and I'm basically very interested to see well, to ask the questions really, how is our environment going to change? What can we do to manage that change, to accommodate that change because we'll still be living here? And also trying to understand how these changes happened in the past? And what can that tell us about the present and future?
Anna Rose: And one of the symptoms of that change is fire, a particular interest for Mark at the moment. It's very hard to imagine, in our famously rainy climate.
Mark Hardiman: So not a lot of people know, but just to the north of us here in Portsmouth is Surrey. Highly populated, lovely leafy green Surrey, most wooded county in Britain, which not let people know. Lots of houses right next to trees and woodlands. If Britain becomes more flammable and those forests and woodlands become more flammable, there's going to be lots of issues around people's houses and stuff. The thing people forget about fires, usually it's not with wildfires, it's not the fire that tends to kill people, it's the smoke. Smoke can be incredibly dangerous, and you can suffocate quite quickly, even if you're not actually that close to the fire. So there are lots of problems, and I think we are seeing these fires in Britain and they are very difficult. But you know, there's lots of issues around fires and I think a lot of people don't realise how vulnerable Britain is and might be in the future.
Anna Rose: Mark explained how we, our children and grandchildren, can expect to witness these abrupt changes.
Mark Hardiman: Meditteranean climates is one of the nicest climates to live in, this is why we will go on holiday to southern Spain, Italy, places like that. But what it will mean and what Mediterranean climates are defined by is quite dry summers, but quite wet winters, but wet, warm winters. And that seasonality and I know Britain doesn't have as much seasonality. It's quite temperate all year round. You have summer and winter, but it's fairly fairly temperate because we have a maritime climate, the sea is just out there. But that will start to change and we will start to get hot, dry summers. And that's perfect conditions for wildfires. To get wildfires, what you need is lots of dry vegetation/litter on the forest floor. As that dries out, it becomes flammable. And you know, you can get a lightning strike, natural fires in Britain, but you also get people setting fires or not controlling fires as well. And that's how fire starts.
Anna Rose: John asked Mark what it was that intrigued him most about building up a picture of Britain's environmental and climatic future.
Mark Hardiman: I'm really interested to see what can the past, particularly in Britain, where I live, where my family live, you know, how is that vulnerable to fire? What role has fire played in the past? And you know, really, what role is it going to play in the future? Should we be worried? That's the three questions, and they sound deceptively simple, but really hard, really hard. A lot of work is going to be required to really bring it all together. Really, we need to look at the past to have any idea because that gives us the timescales to look at how do environment's respond to abrupt climate change. So the idea is basically, I think Britain is going to become more flammable. But one of the ways I'm in my own research looking at this question is going back into the past, thousands, tens of thousands of years ago even and saying, OK, we know Britain was warmer in the past. What was fire like then? Was there as much fire? Would we expect to see much fire and asking those kind of questions.
Anna Rose: To get a clue to just how much fire was a factor in the lives of our ancestors and in how it shaped the British landscape we know and love today. Mark looks at the charcoal content of soils, bogs and lake beds.
Mark Hardiman: My particular interests, things like lakes are excellent because really a lake is a big bucket that just accumulates sediment over time. So we can go to lakes or peat bogs even and take cores, which allow us to go basically backwards in times of these layers, a bit like a cake and you go further, further back in time. We can look for charcoal and that tells us whether there was or wasn't fire. So I think that's, particularly in Britain, we know that, you know, and wherever you look in the recent past, even in the last – the end of the last Ice Age, we have fires in Britain. They're definitely happening and you have the charcoal evidence for it. I think one of the really difficult questions is interpreting that record. How important were those fires? And one of the really interesting things my research and other research from around the globe, is we tend to find where we get abrupt climatic change, which we might expect over the next 50–100 years, you tend to get peaks in fire. So it's almost as if the landscape response to a change somehow involves fire. It clears out the system or, you know, is responding to something – a drying out or a warming up. So even during cold snaps, you get increases in charcoal. So it's quite interesting. That's where I'm really interested. It's like when you get abrupt change. What can fire do, particularly what can fire do within Britain? That hasn't really been looked at to be honest. Not in any great detail.
Anna Rose: Present-day people use fire to clear spaces for things like grazing and agriculture the world over. In these cases, control is everything. This was no different for our Ice Age ancestors. Mark tracked the geographic line of human migration across continents and found peaks in historic charcoal matched up, like a sort of temporal footprint. That's not to say that humans are the only source of fires, but manmade fires can be a lot more destructive than lightning.
Mark Hardiman: But Britain does have natural wildfires, and we now know that there were fires in Britain long before our species humans. One of my real interests is to see how our ancestors used fire. You know we have, our species have been able to control and create fire for a long, long time. But it's always that interesting question when people arrive in a new area, are they using fire? But of course, humans create fire as well. They don't just use fire in terms of campfires, but we know indigenous populations actually, people use fires to burn landscapes to drive game out. It's a hunting strategy. So it's interesting. So we've been changing landscape for a long time as humans. It's not just since the industrial revolution, it's been happening a long, long time.
Anna Rose: Mark's research also caused him to confront other questions, such as how much the landscape we currently take for granted as natural may actually have been shaped by manmade burning activity.
Mark Hardiman: At the end of the last Ice Age, suddenly, you start to get people arriving in Britain, but it may have been 15–20,000 people across the whole landscape. Not that many. If they used fire in a big scale, it's possible even quite a small number had quite a big impact on our landscape. And I mean, there is even ideas that, you know, the heathen that we get across, you know, across the south, really, Hampshire, Dorset, that might be a totally unnatural landscape feature. That heathen might be there because, during the Mesolithic, people came in, they started chopping trees down, and farming and other things and basically created this heathen. It might be totally unnatural.
Anna Rose: The history in itself is fascinating. But Mark also drew some conclusions about what our way of life might look like in the future and how we might take such rapid changes into consideration now.
Mark Hardiman: You know, we plant woodlands in southern Britain, managed woodlands. You know, if you plant woodland today, you need to know that woodland is going to be OK in 80 years time – trees live for a long time – when the climate's going to be quite different in Britain. So actually, even though these changes seem like a long way away, we actually have to plan for now. Start thinking about these management issues. Britain is very highly populated, many parts of Britain, anyway, you know, so we are – there is lots of urban-rural interfaces all around us, particularly in the southeast. If those rural parts then become more flammable, we have to figure out how we're going to deal with that, putting more planning in for new houses, I think that's a very big deal, you know, with these new estates, they're going, oh, we're thinking about things like fire or not. Probably not, because there's a big demand. You know, it's different pressures, isn't it? Of course, people like the idea of living near woodland or even living in woodland. But that's because I don't think they've grasped, you know, these things can be set on fire. But you know, it's one of many risks that climate change will present, and it's going to be a plethora. Sea level change we've already discussed, you know, more flooding, river flooding and stuff like that as well. So it's going to be a upclimb. It's probably become slightly more unpredictable.
Anna Rose: Mark's asking big questions as to how what we are learning might be incorporated into management of our changing landscapes in the future.
Mark Hardiman: So we do prescribed? This is a big question. So particularly more than there is, the fire service often does prescribed burning now because if you do a controlled burn, you thin out the fuel source. And if you go on to sort of the best-case scenario where we really cut down on our greenhouse emissions, you know, we can actually limit some of these changes. Temperature is a fascinating one as well. You know, by the year 3000, if we stave off now, we might have sort of two degrees, three degrees warming, which is still a lot. Whereas if we don't, you're talking eight, ten degrees warming. I mean, could you imagine, 38 degree would be a normal summer's day in the southeast of England. This is going forward a thousand years hence, but anyway. But so there's going to be change. But then, you know, humans have survived big changes. We, our ancestors survived the last Ice Age. OK, we were a much smaller band of hunter-gatherers. But I'm actually quite optimistic. I think you know, the solutions going forward are interdisciplinary. It's about people working with engineers, scientists, managers, you know. You have to work together and probably global issues to these problems.
Anna Rose: It's easy to imagine the world will stay the same, but the truth is it never has. It does seem, though, that changes in our climate will accelerate faster than humankind have seen for generations. As it was 100 years in the past, the Britian 100 years in the future looks set to be a very different one to that of our childhoods, with very different questions to answer.
Mark Hardiman: You know, I look at these young minds that, you know, very high in talent that come through our doors and they're going to be the ones that are going to have to figure this out. And I think if they embrace the change, embrace the challenge. You know, I think we can adapt to these things. It will be difficult.
Anna Rose: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. Mark is now co-investigator in a recently established research team funded by the National Environment Research Council, (NERC) to develop a wildfire danger rating system for the UK. You can follow Mark's work and hear more about the big questions research here is answering by going to the website, its port.ac.uk/research. Our new magazine Solve follows University of Portsmouth research when it's put into practice. It's full of news and stories on our world-leading advances and the changes these are making to lives and futures across the world. You can read more from Mark in our very first issue. Go to port.ac.uk/Solve. Next time on Life Solved, we'll hear how hidden cells in our brains could hold the clue to treatment for some of our biggest illnesses.
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