We are all well aware of the social impacts of the recent heat waves, for example the fact that the extreme heat is causing uproar in the climate conscious world. This can be seen as a positive impact, as it is making the movement towards rapid and effective changes in our lifestyles increase dramatically.
As well as this 'positive' impact, these intense temperatures have had distinct negative impacts, such as taking many human lives across the entire continent.
But there have also been many impacts of the heatwave that appear to be less well known by the general public and these need to be talked about so we can truly see how much of a destructive impact extreme heat has on our planet, particularly on our wildlife.
Here are 5 hidden impacts of the 2022 heatwaves.
I for on noticed that leaves seemed to be crunching under my feet on my daily dog walk much earlier than they usually do, and had me thinking that autumn had arrived early. Unfortunately, this observation was in fact partly true, due to the high temperatures and extreme weather many areas are experiencing a drought which places trees in survival mode and is loosely given the term ‘false autumn’.
What this means is that a lack of water has caused tree leaves to lose their colour and drop off earlier than they usually would, as Summer in the UK is not due to end until the 23rd of September. According to Leigh Hunt, the senior horticultural advisor at the Royal Horticultural society
“It's giving the appearance that we're already in autumn, but the days are too long for those natural autumn processes to begin,"
"Physiologically, the plants are not responding to autumn conditions; that's why we term it loosely as 'false autumn'."
Older trees may be able to withstand these conditions and with a little rainfall could recover, however younger trees may wither and die which has a knock on effect on other wildlife who rely on the seeds or nuts these trees produce, and it also hinders carbon removal out of the atmosphere.
The extreme weather and an unsettled climate can also throw off the natural cycles, such as nut and fruit ripening. This year in England the Woodland Trust Nature Calendar recorded ripe blackberry reports as early as the 28th of June, when usually they ripen in the latter half of the summer.
If this ripening happens too early, the fruit may arrive in less quantity, smaller in size and may drop and die (as this helps dry plants preserve the water in times of heat and drought) before autumn has begun. This can have detrimental effects on wildlife, such as birds, badgers and squirrels, who rely on these fruits, nuts and seeds in the later colder months of the year.
The poor unsuspecting animals, arguably suffer the most in the heatwaves. The extreme temperatures come as a surprise to them and most British wildlife is not adapted to withstand such heat. Naturalists said animals were hauntingly still during the heatwaves, in an attempt to stay cool and shelter from the heat.
The water source, such as lakes or even just moist soil, were dry and this made staying hydrated very difficult, especially for smaller mammals such as hedgehogs, badgers, foxes and even birds. Evie Button, an RSPCA scientific officer said that “Our emergency call centre has many more calls than usual. On Monday (one of the first days of the July heatwave) we received 7,186 calls to our helpline compared to 4,416 on Sunday, which was a big increase,”.
The reason that this impact remains an ‘unknown’ one is due to the fact that wildlife tends to hide away and stay hidden when sick or injured, meaning that we don't get to see the full impact our poor carbon choices have on the undeserving wildlife.
We all generally associate summer heat with swarms of wasps, bees, flying ants, greenflies, but as previously mentioned, heatwaves destroy the natural cycles and the plants that insects feed on dry out, leaving them unable to get food or shelter. Bumble bees in particular, which are are a crucial part of our ecosystems (read a previous blog on the importance of bees here) are badly affected by the heat, their furry coats were adapted for cooler environments therefore they overheat very quickly in hot weather and they cannot fly to collect pollen, their main food source meaning they could die if there are extended periods of hot weather.
Bees are already disappearing due to climate change and habitat loss so if the numbers continue to decline the effects could be seriously damaging on our ecosystems.
Although many believe humans sit as an apex predator at the top of the food chain, we suffer a big increase in death. England and Wales suffered, 1180 excess deaths in one week of the heatwave in July but a more hidden impact is the increase in mental health issues, and attempted suicides.
According to Dr Laurecne Wainwright, a lecturer at Oxford ““In recent years there’s been an increasingly large body of research showing us that heatwaves worsen outcomes for those with underlying psychiatric illnesses,”. The extreme heat can trigger manic phases in people with mental illnesses, for example people with bipolar disorder. A study published in 2007, found that there is a 3.8% increase in suicide rates for every 1 degree rise in average temperatures above 18 degrees.
This is partly due to a lack of sleep that comes hand in hand with British heat waves in particular, most of our houses are not equipped for the heat which makes trying to drift off in a very hot bedroom very difficult. For people with mental illnesses, having even a couple sleepless nights can trigger a depressive episode. The heat can also make some psychiatric medicine work less effectively or worsen the side effects, notes Wainwright.
Another impact of the heatwave on mental health is eco anxiety, they can cause people, often younger people, to experience extreme stress about climate change and the future of our planet.
These lesser known impacts of the heatwave are just as serious as the typically well known impacts. The effects of the heatwaves can be deadly for wildlife and urgently cutting down greenhouse gases to slow global warming should be our number one climate priority so these animals do not suffer at the hands of our actions. We can also ease many of our own anxieties surrounding the climate by working on cutting down our greenhouse gas emissions.
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