Apologies for only updating NextStarfish once last week – one of the reasons is that I’ve spent quite a lot of time battling the effects of the UK’s latest flooding in my day job. Unfortunately, with more rain forecast over the next 24 hours, it’s probably not quite over yet.
Almost every year it seems there’s more flooding, more properties affected, more damage and more demands for investment in flood defences – what’s going on ?
Partly it’s the media of course – online and 24 hour news coverage mean we hear more about, and are more aware of, flooding than ever before.
Secondly there are more of us around than there used to be ! An extra 10 million in the UK compared to 50 years ago, so any given incidence of flooding is likely to affect a greater number of people. This is true across our crowded world, especially in urban areas – often located on the coast or on rivers, and which are home to millions more every year.
Thirdly we’ve changed the way water flows through the landscape – centuries of paving over more and more soil and installing drainage networks to quickly route rainfall downhill into the nearest stream, works well in saving us from a spot of soggy ground under typical rainfall conditions, but trying to rout all the water rapidly down the same pipes into the same watercourses is a recipe for disaster when the big storm comes !
Fourthly we’ve managed to put ourselves in the way of the water – as our cities have expanded we’ve built ever more homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure on flood plains. Insulated from the reality of nature, over the years we’ve seemingly allowed less and less space for water.
If we want less flooding, it seems we’re going to have to get smarter in planning our towns and cities in ways that don’t put us on a collision course with water.
But there’s also another issue – the question about whether we’re also experiencing more extreme rainfall events.
Is our weather changing ?
Lots of commentators seem to think they know the answer – convinced they can tell that our climate is actually changing, or equally convinced it’s nothing but the normal variation of the weather.
How do they know ?
Our personal observations and recollections are just not all that helpful – recalling a particular long hot summer or heavy snowfall from childhood is a poor line of evidence for the reality of global climate change. Our memories are far from infallible, and tend to highlight the unusual, rather than the usual. In any event they are by definition local, limited to wherever we were, as well as to a single human lifetime.
Can we look at the evidence and work out what’s going on ?
As I’ve said before, I’m no climate scientist, and if I’m honest I haven’t really spent much time looking at the data, so even if I felt compelled to offer you my opinion, it wouldn’t make much sense for you to listen to it !
But there are a increasing number of well respected institutions, who have offered their opinion, dabbling in the new field of attribution science. They’re probably worth listening to:
NASA state that the number of record high temperatures in the US has been increasing, while record lows have been decreasing, as well as increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.
The European Environment Agency state that the combined impacts of projected climate change and socio-economic development is set to see the damage costs of extreme weather events continue to increase.
Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office has stated that “we are much more confident about attributing [weather effects] to climate change. This is all adding up to a stronger and stronger picture of human influence on the climate.”
So is this current flooding the direct result of climate change ? – Who knows – impossible to tell.
Is climate change making flooding like this more likely in the future ? – It appears the answer is yes.
It might not be much comfort to those affected by the recent flooding, but at least rich societies like the UK can provide alternative shelter, support and assistance to those affected, and devote resources to developing resilient communities and preventing future flooding. This is not the case in many parts of the world, where millions are still living with the after effects of more catastrophic floods.
With the latest round of UN climate talks about to begin in Dohar later today, this is something I’ll no doubt be pondering as I deal with the after effects of the latest flooding.
Photo by Salford University, via Flickr