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climate canary

noun [countable]

an unexpected change in something from the natural world which is caused by climate change, and which indicates that much bigger environmental problems are likely in the future

'Agriculture is the industry most likely to be directly effected by global climate change and the grape, being such a delicate creature, will act as our canary … Grapes are our climate canary because they grow only in a narrow band of climatic conditions. Early spring frosts kill budding grapes on the vine, while extreme summer heat causes the vine to stop fruit development.'

Ars Technica 28th July 2006

We might not all be in a position to witness the reality of melting glaciers in the Arctic, but have you noticed that your daffodils appeared much earlier this year? Did your skiing holiday not live up to expectations because of the lack of snow? If either of these situations is familiar to you, or you can pinpoint other unfamiliar events that somehow relate to unexpected fluctuations in temperature, then you can begin to understand the concept of a climate canary.

in early 2007, the expression climate canary was voted "most useful word of the year" by the American Dialect Society

With concerns about the environment firmly on the worldwide political agenda, expressions such as global warming and climate change are an integral part of 21st-century vocabulary. In this context, the new expression climate canary has been coined to refer to some kind of unexpected change in a natural species or organism, which, though not catastrophic in itself, could be seen as a warning that something far more significant and environmentally damaging is on the horizon.

In early 2007, the expression climate canary was voted "most useful word of the year" by the American Dialect Society, narrowly missing the top spot of overall word of the year, which went to the new verb pluto. Over in the UK, there's been a poignant indication of the 'usefulness' of the expression during recent weeks. In April this year, Britain was basking in the sunshine, enjoying unusually warm weather throughout the Easter holiday period. Temperatures rose as high as 28° Celsius, the hottest April since records began 350 years ago. People watched hawthorn bushes flowering early, and swifts flying in prematurely from Africa.

Just as the British public thought that summer had arrived early, the rains came. June, conversely, was the wettest on record, and on Monday 25th, parts of northern England received the equivalent of a month's rainfall in just 24 hours. Thousands of homes were flooded in parts of Yorkshire and the Midlands, and agriculture took an alarming blow as fields disappeared underwater.

In July, it was the turn of western and central England to be hit by floods, with major disruptions for hundreds of thousands of people.

Background – climate canary

The expression climate canary seems to have been around since about 2000, though it has gained currency in the past year or so, with the increasingly high-profile concept of climate change fuelling (no pun intended!) a wider range of eco-sensitive terminology, including carbon neutral and food mile.

The use of the word canary relates back to the phrase canary in a coalmine, which is sometimes used to describe a particular event or situation that acts as an indicator of something more unpleasant on the horizon. The phrase itself stems from the practice of taking canaries down coalmines, where they were at one time used as an early warning device for miners. Toxic gases such as methane and carbon monoxide would kill the birds before affecting humans. As canaries often sing, they potentially provided an audible as well as a visual signal of danger.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 7th August 2007.

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