Ireland's rich, green scenery may fade to brown, its potato crop may again whither, and the island's classic soft rains may turn harsh if climate change continues unabated, a new report says. Heavy rains in some parts of the island could lead to serious erosion. And bog bursts -- when masses of peat slide down slopes like a California mudslide -- are expected to be more common.
Changes have already hit Ireland, with mean temperatures over the last two decades rising at a rate much higher than the global average for the period. Rainfall in Donegal is up 30 percent over the last century.
Despite their findings, the report's authors suggest that the Irish should focus on what still exists: a green, pristine landscape.
"St. Patrick's Day is a time to celebrate all things Irish," said Kevin Sweeney, director of the Irish American Climate Project, which released the report. "We celebrate the fact that Ireland is still green, still lovely beyond compare. But we also make it clear that this beauty is fragile. It can be lost if we fail to act."
The report, "Changing Shades of Green," was released today in Washington and Dublin by the Irish American Climate Project. It is based on the latest work of leading Irish climate scientists, and was issued in conjunction with ICARUS, the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units.
"Climate change has the potential to change the face of Ireland and to transform its environment," said John Sweeney, one of the lead scientists for the report and former president of the Irish Meteorological Society. "Changes in temperature, rainfall and storm patterns can subtly yet irrevocably alter the Irish way of life."
The report takes a unique approach, pairing the scientific sections with leading Irish musicians, poets and other artists who explain how the projected environmental implications will affect Irish culture. "Who else but the Irish would invoke music to explain climate change?" Sweeney asked.
"People want to know that there are sacred places that we will protect," said Martin Hayes, the famed Irish fiddler. "They want to know that we have a barometer in our being that stops us from doing the irreversible."
"Everything in the Irish landscape depends on slow absorption, and slow release," said Irish filmmaker Dermot Somers, in reference to projected changes in rainfall patterns. "When you get very abrupt drenches, these sudden downpours of heavy rain and severe wind, that process doesn't work anymore."
The report is already getting noticed on Capitol Hill.
"As a second-generation Irish immigrant, with strong ties to the country of my ancestors, these revelations are troubling," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "And as the Chairman of a new U.S. House committee dedicated to studying global warming and its solutions, it fits into a larger pattern seen across the globe, changes these Irish eyes have unfortunately witnessed first-hand. Keeping the Emerald Isle from turning brown is one more reason the world must act to reduce the dangerous buildup of global warming pollution in our atmosphere."
Ireland's green landscapes would be affected primarily by increases in temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns. Prolonged droughts, particularly in the southeast, will lead to brown hillsides as grasses grow parched in summer. Rainfall patterns in the southeast of Ireland will replicate those associated with Mediterranean climates. Heavy rain events in the winter, primarily in the north and west, will lead to erosion and the exposure of granite and gravel. Dublin, Ireland's largest city, may face water shortages as a result of these changes.
"Despite the fact that Ireland is renowned for its steady rains, it is deeply ironic that we may face significant seasonal water shortages as a consequence of climate change," said Dr. Rowan Fealy, one of the report's authors.
With the projected warmer summers, the surface of many bogs will dry and crack. When a warm summer is followed by a wet autumn or winter, rainwater seeps into the cracks and works its way to the bedrock -- causing massive stretches of peat to rip loose and slide down slope.
Warmer, damper temperatures increase the likelihood of potato blight and could eliminate the crop on a commercial scale in Ireland by mid-century. Major adjustments in farming practices, necessitated by climate change, will likely lead to the introduction of expanses of row crops -- changing the look and feel of Irish farms and the Irish landscape.
The report quotes from William Butler Yeats' classic poem, "Easter, 1916," with its famous lines about an incident that sparked the Irish revolution: "All changed, changed utterly."
"Those lines have real meaning for the Irish," said Sweeney. "What Yeats wrote then can also be said of climate change. All will have changed, changed utterly, if we fail to act. When the St. Patrick's Day parties are over, we want the Irish to remember this. We want them to know they have a role to play. Those who want to keep Ireland green need to push for changes in our energy policies both in Ireland and in America. They need to push for changes to stop the worst effects of climate change from coming to pass."
There are, adds scientist and report author Laura McElwain, "still choices we can make that may prevent some of the worst effects."
Copies of the report are available at http://www.climateofhope.org.