Ireland inundated by record rainfall

DUBLIN, Ireland ― The Lakes of Killarney have overflowed, the River Shannon has become a lake, and the city of Galway is practically cut off, due to the worst floods in memory in the west and south of Ireland this week.

Ireland is being drenched day after day by rain belts of such extraordinary intensity that climate experts are wondering whether the future of the land of Saints and Scholars is to be a constant deluge. The omens are not good for a country that has always had more wet days than dry.

This is the third year in succession that the Irish counties on the Atlantic seaboard have experienced record rains and flooding. This time, waters rose in rivers and lakes and gushed out of drains and manholes because the tropical downpours fell on land already saturated by earlier rains.

Here are just some examples of the disruption and distress caused by the abnormal weather, which has badly affected the cities of Galway and Cork in particular:

  • The famous Lakes of Killarney spilled over and inundated the ground floor of the four-star Lake Hotel for the first time in its 190-year history. The 120 guests were evacuated by tractor as waiters carried antique furniture and carpets upstairs, and the hotel has closed until Jan. 14, 2010.
  • The flooding is so widespread in Galway County that the main road and railway line to Dublin is cut off and 65 other roads are closed.
  • Villages along the Shannon in County Tipperary are submerged. The railway station in the town of Ballinasloe is marooned in floodwaters and commuters have to be ferried to the platform in army trucks.

There is a widespread perception in Ireland that extreme weather is the consequence of global warming. Professor Ray Bates of University College Dublin, one of Ireland’s leading meteorologists, is not so sure.

“The temperature in Ireland has risen by less that 1 percent Celsius and that will cause a 7 percent increase in the moisture-holding capacity of the air,” said Bates, who is chairman of the Climate Change Sciences Committee of the Royal Irish Academy. “The rainfall amounts well above that this week can only be explained by anomalies in the rainfall pattern.”

Bates pointed out that there is no upward trend in the rainfall statistics recorded at Armagh Observatory since 1840, and that the surface temperature of the water in the Atlantic has actually cooled recently. “I’d be very cautious about attributing the present rainfall to climate change,” he said in a telephone interview.

The Irish Meteorological Office struck a similar cautious note on its website. “Ireland has had three extraordinary years of rainfall, both in terms of the overall amounts of rain and in the number of very intense spells of heavy rain,” it said. “Such events have happened before and are within the realms of ‘natural variability’ so it is not possible to say that these events have been directly caused by climate change. However, such events have rarely occurred so close together in time or over so many locations so it is reasonable to wonder if this is a feature of a changed climate.”

The meteorological office was in no doubt, however, that climate change is a reality in Ireland, with less frost and snow in winter and a longer and earlier growing season for plants and crops.

Whatever the climatologists say, there is no doubt that Galway is experiencing one of the worst anomalies in Irish weather. The record November rainfall for Galway, set in 2002, was 8.3 inches. With six days to go the total rainfall this month is already 9.4 inches.

On Tuesday, a one day work stoppage by public service workers, including rescue services, police and hospital staff, in protest of pay cuts, was suspended in the worst-affected areas.

The official forecast for Galway on Wednesday includes "heavy showers."