UK flooding and extreme weather linked to climate change

With the water level of the Thames at a record high, villages underwater and even more rain to come, the UK is searching for someone to blame, but is the real culprit climate change?…

With more than 130 severe flood warnings, which indicate a danger to life, issued in the UK since December 2013 compared with a mere 12 of the same for the whole of 2012, the storms battering the UK may not be unprecedented but are nothing short of exceptional said Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist of the Met Office.

The extreme weather has caused flooding to over 5,000 homes over the past two months and thousands more are still at risk as the UK faces another period of rainfall with “no end in sight”.

14 severe warnings are currently in place in the Thames Valley area, while 2 remain in Somerset. The Somerset levels, a South Westerly region of the country, has been dealing with extensive flooding since the beginning of the year.

The Thames river, which runs through the South Eastern counties of Berkshire and Surrey, burst its banks yesterday, exceeding any water level reached since gauges were installed in th2 1980s, meaning many homes are now being evacuated. Train services have been disrupted between Hampshire and Berkshire and Somerset and Wales. Oxfordshire and Essex have also been affected.

While the UK government and the Environment Agency does its best to alleviate the crisis, debates continue as to who is to blame for the lack of preparedness. Some believe rivers should have been dredged (to remove excess silt build-up) and the Environment Agency has been heavily criticised for its poor handling of the crisis. People affected by the flooding have said they felt abandoned by the agency and the chairman, Lord Smith, now faces calls for his dismissal. Others believe government cuts have left funds for aid and flood defences lacking.

Whichever man-made solutions should or should not have been implemented, nature is at the heart of the problem. Evidence now suggests that the cause of what has been called “the most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”, may be climate change.

Speaking ahead of a Met Office report produced by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, Dame Slingo  said: “while there is no definitive answer for the current weather patterns that we have seen, all the evidence suggests that climate change has a role to play in it.”

The report itself suggests that the recent Polar Vortex in America and the storms hitting the UK are linked. Both caused by “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, partly emanating from changing weather patterns in South East Asia and “associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region”

Dame Slingo said of the connection: “The air that enters this storm system comes from that part of the Atlantic where it is obviously going to be warmer and carrying more moisture.”

“We also now have strong evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense”

She warned that Britons should be prepared to face more regular extreme weather in the future and that sea levels were expected to rise by a foot over time. “That might not sound a lot, but when you are looking at storm surges, when you are looking at moving water from the Somerset Levels out to sea, it does matter.” she added. 

“The attribution of these changes to anthropogenic global warming requires climate models of sufficient resolution to capture storms and their associated rainfall,” the report said.

Such models are now becoming available and should be deployed as soon as possible to provide a solid evidence base for future investments in flood and coastal defences.”

For now however, there is no end in sight. The jet stream is not yet moving further north to resume its normal position and Sky News reports that groundwater levels are so high that the risk of flooding could remain until May – particularly in low-lying areas such as the Somerset levels.

“Andy McKenzie, a groundwater scientist at the British Geological Survey, told Sky News that even if the rain stopped today, so much water is soaking through the soil that levels are likely to keep rising for another two months.” (Sky News)

For live updates on the floods and the areas affected, see Sky News.

Sources include: BBC News; The Telegraph; The Financial Times; Sky News

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