When it comes to scientific literacy climate change really seems to have the power to cloud people’s minds. Including on basic logic which, one might say, is not the exclusive purview of science but certainly ought to be a fundamental element. For instance the recent story that “An English castle stood for centuries. Climate change is prompting its collapse.” The victim here being a small section of Hurst Castle, part of Henry VIII’s preparation for a possible French invasion in response to his break with Rome. Although the main structure has been there since 1544, this year “a wing constructed in the mid-19th century by the best military engineers in the world — tumbled into the fast currents of The Solent strait. Hurst Castle has done its duty, but it is hard to fight the sea — specifically, its caretakers say, the steadily rising waters and more intense winter storms of a warming world.” But if it’s climate change, why are the oldest parts of the castle still standing? Perhaps because the newer section was built on a “shingle spit” directly exposed to the pounding ocean and its collapse was inevitable, despite restoration efforts in recent years. Nah, probably climate change.
Except that, as we have observed, the rate of sea level rise has not increased so climate’s not to blame there. Nor are storms getting worse. Nor did erosion start at 300 ppm of atmospheric CO2. Hurst, like many castles and stately homes in England, is falling prey to the passage of time, an inevitable risk for a structure that juts out into the Atlantic.
As the Washington Post added, Britain “is stuffed to the attic with heritage properties. Whereas animals might migrate, seeking more hospitable habitats, a Norman church, Roman villa or neolithic stone circle cannot move. They’re stuck where they are, built for pre-industrial climates, centuries ago.” But here we are being handed a pig in a poke. What is this talk of “pre-industrial climates” as opposed to our own? Are we being asked to accept that the 18th century didn’t have bad storms or something?
Yup. “Historically, the British weather is grey but relatively benign. Now there are frequent violent downpours — real gullywashers, a month’s worth of precipitation in a day.” Oh really? Then what was Daniel Defoe on about with “The Storm”, his account of the benign breeze and drizzle in late 1703 that sank a fifth of the British navy and left Portsmouth and other coastal towns looking “as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces”? (BTW if you have Google Maps on your computer you can readily determine that Portsmouth is fully 30 km from… Hurst Castle.)
The story also notes “deep cracks in the fortified casemates of the Victorian-era west wing”. OK. But it hasn’t stood for centuries, any more than the bit that collapsed. They were built a century and a half ago and after being steadily undermined are now either in big trouble or gone. Why is such a thing surprising?
The story quotes “Rob Woodside, estates director for English Heritage, which owns and cares for Hurst Castle along with another 400 cultural sites, that “These historic structures were built for the climate of their times, not the changing climate we are seeing today”. Again, the notion that the climate of their times was neither changing nor problematic for a seaside structure is hard to swallow even if suitably slicked up. Especially as the story immediately adds “In recent years, Hurst Castle lost its seaside beach, likely as a result of decades of coastal development. Then the waters rose, the storms came, and the sea exposed and undercut the castle’s foundations…. The past 100 years have seen five inches of sea-level rise on this very spot, Woodside said. By the end of the century, it could be more than three feet. The castle sits on a sandbar.”
Rubbish. The nearest tide gauge is at Portsmouth and it shows a long term increase of 1.84 mm per year, which is just over 7 inches per century, not even close to 36 inches. And the sea level rise all but ended in 1980 with no visible trend over the past 40 years. The building on a sandbar was undermined by the removal of its beach by human action not climate change. The story raves on about how “Although it is not possible to attribute one event to climate change, already winters are warmer and wetter in Britain, which means more severe and frequent flooding. The summers are hotter and drier, too, which contributes to a phenomenon called ‘ground heave’ — the expansion and contraction of soil.” Got that? Climate change makes it wetter and drier and both are bad for the castle. What were they hoping for, oobleck to glue the thing together?
Another problem is that with climate change, the seas can rise for a century and nibble at first-rate Victorian foundations or possibly shabby government work. But climate change that only kicked in for real 40 years ago can nevertheless be to blame for sea level rise in a place where it promptly stopped. Whereas logic suggests that cause must precede effect, in science and elsewhere.