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Saturday, 2 December, 2000, 10:34 GMT
Caves reveal clues to UK weather
Reasons for the UK's weather patterns are hard to pinpoint
By BBC science correspondent Tom Heap

When large parts of the UK were flooded last month, both the government and the Environment Agency said it was the result of global warming.


I am quite concerned that the general public and the government and decision makers are aware of the climate cycle in this country

Dr Andy Baker
The change in the Earth's climate, it was claimed, was altering weather patterns, making us more likely to have mild but sodden autumns.

Given the complexity of what drives the climate, it is almost impossible to say categorically whether this is true or not.

But the statements helped to deflect from more concrete causes of flood damage like building houses on flood plains.

Dissolved minerals

Good written records of rainfall only extend back about 200 years - too short a time to prove a fundamental shift. Now, however, a hidden history of our climate has been discovered in some of the UK's caves.


You get these growth spurts and these can be seen by the growth rings which are found in the stalagmites

Alan Walker
Cave guide
Most caves are formed when rainwater dissolves limestone rock. Underground rivers can open up huge caverns where water continually drips through the roof.

This liquid is rich in dissolved minerals and some of these build up as stalactites (hanging down) and stalagmites (growing up). Sometimes, the sediments tumble down the cave wall like a petrified waterfall.

At Pooles Cavern in Derbyshire, it was discovered that the stalagmites grow faster in the winter months when it rains more.

Precipitation history

Alan Walker, who guides visitors through the caves, says the changes in rainfall are recorded in the stalactites and stalagmites like the growth rings in trees.

He told the BBC: "Stalagmites have been known to grow more in the winter. You get these growth spurts and these can be seen by the growth rings which are found in the stalagmites."

Stalagmites from a number of caves have now been analysed by Dr Andy Baker at Newcastle University. After splitting and polishing the rock, he can measure its growth precisely.

He has built up a precipitation history going back thousands of years.

Not unusual rainfall

His study suggests this autumn's rainfall is not at all unusual when looked at over such a timescale but is well within historic variations.

He believes politicians find it expedient to blame a man-made change in our weather rather than addressing the complex scientific picture.

"I am quite concerned that the general public and the government and decision makers are aware of the climate cycle in this country and understand the natural variability of rainfall".

He said he wanted greater awareness to ensure "future decision-making could be made based on scientific data and not on political expediency".


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24 Nov 00 | UK
21 Nov 00 | UK Politics
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