Following on from my last post about the stormy end to 2013 in the UK, the past month or so has continued this disturbing trend and some regions have had atypically high amounts of rainfall:

Photo: Rainfall for Jan 2014 in the UK compared to 1981-2010 average. Source: BBC / Met Office.
Photo: Rainfall for Jan 2014 in the UK compared to 1981-2010 average. Source: BBC / Met Office.
Photo: The Jan 2014 UK rainfall has been the highest since records began over 100 years ago. Source: BBC / Met Office.
Photo: The January rainfall in SE and central southern England reached the highest levels for the month since records began over 100 years ago. Source: BBC / Met Office.

On top of these intense and heavy rainfall patterns, January was also an unusually warm month for almost all the UK:

Photo: January temperatures compared to the 1981-2010 average for the UK. Source. BBC / Met Office.
Photo: January temperatures compared to the 1981-2010 average for the UK. Source. BBC / Met Office.

Most scientific researchers these days rightly do not attempt to attribute specific weather events or sequences of events directly to climate change (because of unknowns and knowns in modelling approaches, and due to the variety of overlapping weather-affecting cycles of differing lengths that are known about).

The BBC’s environment analyst put it this way, ‘The jury’s still out on whether humans are to blame for extreme weather‘. Nevertheless what we’ve seen in the UK in the past few months I believe is at the very least highly illustrative of one possibly reality behind what researchers actually mean when they talk about projections of ‘warmer, wetter’ winters in the UK if and as the climate changes along the path(s) we currently believe are possible. In spite of some potentially positive impacts predicted from climate change, e.g. for certain types of tourism and agriculture, I think the range of devastation and disruption played out in the UK over the past weeks is a challenge to anyone who might suggest that ‘warmer, wetter’ winters – with associated characteristics of more intense, heavier rainfall events – are something to welcome without reservation.

There’s also the other attribution to human behaviour issue here, which is the role of man-made floods and water management and planning. George Monbiot summed the issues up very well (see also the side-box of this BBC story). Monbiot scathily attacked the misdirection of public funds that have increased not decreased resistance and resilience to flooding, e.g. by canalizing rivers and thereby accelerating flood water flows in places:

‘Vast amounts of public money – running into the billions – are spent every year on policies that make devastating floods inevitable. This is the story that has not been told by the papers or the broadcasters’

TV and print media seem to be catching up, it must be said, in the wake of recent weather events – and Monbiot’s post. One example that caught my eye was the recent C4 Dispatches called ‘Floods: Your Money Down The Drain‘:

Photo: C4 Dispatches documentary episode about the recent floods, their foul flooding impacts, and water sector investments in the UK.
Photo: C4 Dispatches documentary episode about the recent floods, their foul flooding impacts, and water sector investments in the UK.

The reason that it did was the team at October Films that made it had contacted me several times over the past few months. We had some very interesting discussions about issues of how and where the UK water industry has and hasn’t invested to help or hinder problems of foul flooding from sewers, and the general incremental, conservative attitude of the sector to new approaches and new technologies. (Sadly I didn’t end up being filmed, for a number of reasons; still I wonder if my name appears in any acknowledgements in the credits? It seems bonkers to an academic not to cite one’s sources, but we’ll see what the norms are in the media world when I’ve had time to watch the programme.)

The coming weeks and months will see if there’s any policy shift in response to these criticisms, to the scale of impact in Wales, SW England, and for planned job cuts at the Environment Agency given that it has clearly been operationally stressed by recent events (here’s hoping its premium rate floodline will be dropped though).

Duncan Thomas

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