Monday, 17 August 2009

My microclimate is hotter than yours

Chris Gourlay
Since moving to balmy Dymchurch on the south Kent coast, Debbie and John Playford say their lives have been transformed. The village is sheltered by gentle hills and seems immune from much of the washout summer that has afflicted Britain.
John, a 67-year-old retired engineer, credits his local microclimate. “Whatever the weather forecasts say, it’s always different down here,” he said. “So when someone tells us it’s going to rain we just ignore them.
“Even last winter, when just 20 miles down the coast they were experiencing the most terrible blizzards, we had just half an inch of snowfall and it was all melted by the end of the day.”
The couple, who run a guest-house, claim that the microclimate means they are often able to wheel out the barbecue while the rest of the country is damp with drizzle.
“The climate is more like the south of France than the south of England. Palm trees thrive in Dymchurch and we’ve got vines in the garden.”
In a summer of downpours, a microclimate has become the latest must-have and the last refuge of the optimist. Never mind if it’s grim, goes the theory, for those in the know, there are hidden corners of Britain where the sun always shines.
The tourism industry is all for microclimates. Torquay enthuses about its swaying palms, claiming “summer really does linger longer” there. Great Yarmouth in Norfolk is so determined to prove its microclimate outshines Met Office forecasts that it has set up a 24-hour webcam to prove it.
Eastbourne’s weather is so special that it claims “year-round sunshine”. Michael Fish, the now semi-retired weather forecaster who is a resident of the town, says it enjoys a sunny, temperate environment because it is sheltered by the 600ft cliffs of Beachy Head. He reckons the country is littered with secret places offering respite from the gloom.
For those condemned to ominous grey skies this summer, talk of sun-kissed Mediterranean climes just round the corner sounds alluring. But are microclimates a genuine meteorological phenomenon or the stuff of overheated imaginations? How much difference can they really make?
THERE’S no doubt that the country’s geography means there are some basic rules for avoiding bad weather. Prevailing winds dump most of the rain on the west coast, so the southeast and East Anglia tend to be drier. The further north you go the colder it gets, and for every 300ft increase in altitude, the temperature drops by 0.6C.
However, within these broad parameters there can be dramatic local anomalies. Microclimates can be caused by everything from the shelter of hills to the colour and texture of the soil. The eccentricities of our geography mean you can find everything in Britain from subtropical fern forests to abnormally cold “frost pockets”.
“The most extreme natural microclimates are in Cornwall and Scotland’s west coast where the gulf stream hits land,” said Tim Smit, the envi-ronmentalist who restored the Lost Gardens of Heligan in a natural microclimate and founded Britain’s most famous artificial microclimate, the Eden Project.
“In Cornwall, you’re able to grow plants that wouldn’t survive anywhere else in the country because of these amazing microclimates. The British, being absolutely bonkers about growing stuff, will always flock to these places because you can grow exotic plants and it convinces them that they’re in the south of France.
“We have plants in Heligan that don’t grow anywhere except for the southern tropics and the Amazon. In the 19th century, there were these extraordinary competitions for growing exotic fruits in Cornwall – people were, out of a sort of vanity, producing giant pineapples and bananas. They’d boast about their 12lb pineapples over dinner.
“My favourite microclimate is on the Helford River. There are three cracking gardens just dripping with almost Amazonian vegetation.”
Even in cooler Scotland, microclimates can make a dramatic difference. While the valley of Glencoe endures some of Britain’s wettest weather, Aberdeen, to the east of the Highlands, is surprisingly dry and warm. Liz Bentley, an analyst at the Royal Meteorological Society, said: “Places such as Aberdeen benefit from the ‘foehn’ effect. Air is warmed as it goes over mountains and when it comes down the other side, clouds form, releasing latent heat and causing the area to get warmer.”
In the Alps the foehn can warm a locality by 10C. In UK the effect is less marked - about 3C or so - but noticeable.
Given Scotland’s reputation for poor weather, some areas are convinced that their benign microclimates are being unjustly overlooked.
Residents in the village of Carrbridge in the Highlands claim that it is a haven of dryness nestled amid the Cairn-gorms. They are so concerned that the BBC’s regular rainy forecasts are deterring visitors that they have complained about the corporation’s forecasting methods.
“We have sun. It says rain,” said one local. “It’s driving the visitors away.” On one occasion when the BBC, which offers forecasts related to postcodes, had been announcing rain for days, the local woods were so dry that they were declared a fire risk.
In north Wales Tony Burns, manager of the St George’s Hotel in Llandudno, is also keen to talk about the virtues of his “special climate”. He enthused: “They name here the queen of the Welsh resorts. In my 17 years in the town, I can only once remember snow, for instance. It’s genuinely known as a miniature Riviera, the Welsh Riviera, and it’s all due to this wonderful setting and the little microclimate we have.”
PICK the wrong microclimate, of course, and you’re in trouble. Take the residents of Rickmansworth, an attractive commuter town in Hertfordshire. Though the area is filled with good schools and graced with lakes and woodland, it has a down-side that’s not apparent at first sight.
Part of Rickmansworth lies in a “frost pocket” - which means that it is often up to 10C colder than surrounding areas. That is one reason why it holds the record for the biggest temperature rise in a single day in Britain - from a low of 1.1C one August night to 24.9C the following day.
The quirky climatic conditions are caused by the town’s local geography. “It has a very peculiar situation,” says Bentley. “In the winter the cooler air flows down the surrounding hills and gets trapped by a railway embankment and just stays there. It creates a very counterintuitive effect. The lower you go, the icier it gets.”
Shrewsbury in Shropshire, Redhill in Surrey, and Chesham in Buckinghamshire are similarly afflicted.
Michael Dukes, forecasting manager of MeteoGroup, a weather analysis firm, was unpleasantly surprised to discover his local microclimate after moving to Chesham five years ago. “I didn’t have any idea that it has this peculiar climate when I moved,” he said. “The town is right at the end of the Metropolitan line and there have been days when I’ve left work in London when it’s 4C. When I get home it is -7C.
“It’s all to do with the chalk valley,” he added. “It collects cold air and the chalk drains the heat. From a meteorological point of view it’s interesting. I’ve kind of grown to love my microclimate.”
Other unfortunate microclimates include the soggy Sprinkling Tarn in the Lake District, whose location in the lee of surrounding fells reputedly makes it the most rained on place in England.
There is even a suggestion that microclimates may contribute to extreme weather. In 2000 Selsey Bill, on England’s south coast, was struck by its second 100mph twister in two years, ripping off roofs, pelting inhabitants with golf-ball-sized hailstones and sending Patrick Moore, the local resident and astronomer, to take cover under the table ina curry house.
“We don’t fully understand why Selsey keeps getting hit but it is likely to be susceptible to tornadoes because of its location,” said Dukes.
“Tornadoes could form anywhere that cold air hits the warm English Channel. But Selsey’s location downwind of the Isle of Wight could causea wind shear effect, creating rotating thunder storms, which triggers tornadoes. ”
NATURALLY, in a Britain obsessed with weather and property, the concept of the microclimate has even become a selling point for estate agents.
“They can make a difference to a place,” said Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Frank Knight. “The biggest problem estate agents have is proving that to people. Often the difference is quite subtle and people might just think it’s a sales pitch.”
Nevertheless, research by Knight Frank reckoned to finda 21% “microclimate premium” for properties in sheltered estuary locations compared with more exposed coastal locations. John Couch, an estate agent who has lived in Torquay for 40 years, having moved from east London, says the local “microclimate premium” has had a dramatic effect on prices.
“The microclimate here proves a massive draw for people wanting to move to the area,” he said. “As a result, properties here are on a par with those in the home counties.”
Experts also agree that cities can create such powerful microclimates that they generate temperatures 10C higher than surrounding areas because of the “urban heat island” effect.
Mark McCarthy, urban climate specialist at the Met Office, said: “During the day buildings absorb heat, which combines with energy given off from all the cars and general activity, which heats the urban microclimate. That energy is released slowly at night, meaning there are very few frosts.”
And yet, as the grey skies blight the summer, can you really escape and find sunshine by banking on a microclimate?
“There’s no doubt that some microclimates are more favourable to sunshine,” said John Hutchinson, senior meteorologist at MeteoGroup, who has no desire to put a damper on people’s hopes. “But I’m afraid they are only so resilient. If you’ ve got a big front sweeping the country with rain, whatever your microclimate the chances are you’re going to get wet.”