Warming will torment transportation, British government warns

Published October 1, 2000

Global warming will wreak havoc with Britain’s transportation systems, according to Anthony Astbury, business manager for the British Meteorological Office, who briefed the country’s Transportation Research Laboratory earlier this summer.

Erratic weather patterns will be common. Downpours will replace drizzle. Snow will be less common but heavier. More ice will form on rail lines. Landslides will increase in number and severity. Lightning will occur year-round instead of primarily in summer.

The danger will extend to Russia and the United States, Astbury warned. Instead of snow remaining frozen and compacted throughout the winter, it will thaw and refreeze more often, producing more deadly “black ice.”

How did Astbury reach those conclusions? By extrapolating from the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, essentially run by Sir John Houghton of the British Meteorological Office. (This may explain why a Met. Office business manager, rather than a climatologist, was sent to do a climate briefing. Never argue science with a knight.)

In the past, we’ve beaten the “more extreme weather” horse into glue, so let’s move on to something else: landslides.

Certainly the prospect of global warming’s increasing the likelihood of a boulder-sized plunk on the noggin could be enough to persuade you to vote for Ralph Nader (if not beforehand, then definitely afterward). Citing Met. Office studies suggesting the number of days with 25mm or more of precipitation will increase by 250 percent, Astbury noted that “landslips could badly affect railways.” (“Landslips” don’t sound quite so ominous, do they? –Eds.)

But what does science have to say on the subject? In a recent issue of Engineering Geology, A. Collison of Kings College, London, looked at likely impacts of climate change on the frequency of landslides in southeast England.

Noting that General Circulation Models (GCMs) predict higher temperatures and precipitation in that region, Collison and colleagues linked those predictions to a Geographic Information System containing information on slope hydrology and stability. After applying their model to a region of southeastern England noted for landslide activity, they found the number of large landslides will not change. Turns out higher temperatures will create more evaporation in the area, producing no net effect on soil stability. What’s more, their models indicate over the next 80 years, the number of small landslides will actually decline!

In a 1999 landslide study, M. Dehn and J. Buma used the output of three GCMs and a slope stability and hydrology model to examine landslide frequencies in southeastern France. Their conclusion? That they couldn’t conclude, because 1) the forecasts from the three GCMs differed too much to paint a clear picture; and 2) the coarse scale of the GCM predictions makes it impossible to say anything meaningful about an event that occurs on a scale as small as a landslide.

Still, landslides are big, scary things. And short of increased Bigfoot sightings, everything big and scary has somehow been linked to global warming. Flesh-eating bacteria? Global warming. Bubonic plague? Global warming. Mad cow disease? Global warming.

Apparently, Astbury sees Nature as a vengeful goddess. Reminded that transportation is an important source of carbon dioxide, Astbury responded, “The climate bites back.” He is among those who claim extreme weather events are on the rise. “Things will gradually get worse,” he said. “We’re already seeing the first changes.”

With respect to global warming hyperbole trumping science, he is no doubt correct.


——, 2000. Major havoc ahead: Global warming will hammer transport networks. New Scientist, July 1, 2000.

Dehn, M., and J. Buma, 1999. Modelling future landslide activity based on general circulation models. Geomorphology, 30, 175-187.

Collison, A., et al., 2000. Modelling the impact of predicted climate change on landslide frequency and magnitude in SE England. Engineering Geology, 55, 205-218.