Flooding and Global Weirding

This article was first posted in November 2012 – but unfortunately seems equally appropriate for January 2014 !

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 simply 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 right across our crowded world, especially in dense urban areas, which are often located on the coast or on rivers, and which become 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 for saving us from puddles and a spot of soggy ground under typical rainfall conditions, but trying to direct all that water rapidly down the same pipes into the same watercourses is a recipe for disaster when the big storm comes!

Fourthly we’re putting ourselves in the way of the water more and more – as our cities have expanded we’ve built ever more homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure on flood plains. As most of us have become increasingly insulated from the reality of nature over the years, we’ve forgotten that ‘rivers sometimes get larger’ and ‘flood plains sometimes flood’, and, it seems, 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 question – whether we’re also experiencing more frequent and more extreme rainfall events?

Is our weather changing ?

Lots of commentators seem to think they know the answer.

How do they know ?

Unfortunately our personal observations and recollections are just not all that reliable or 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 our own single human lifetime.

What does science have to say ?

Can we look at the evidence and work out what’s going on ?

A lot of people are asking the same question, whether in connection with droughts across America, monsoon failures in India or hurricanes in New York.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m a Pollution Scientist, not a 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 probably wouldn’t be worth you listening 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.

If you’re currently affected by flooding – the best of luck in sorting out your problems.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]

Photo Image used under Creative Commons License from Salford University, via Flickr

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