December 2015 marked the wettest month ever recorded in the UK, with three major storms, Desmond, Eva and Frank, hitting the north in close succession. In the Lake District, record breaking rainfall occurred, with 340mm in just 24 hours (smashing the previously held record of 316.4mm, set in 2009).
The evidence is mounting for global warming as a key causative agent. Of course, winter weather in the UK is often unpredictable and damaging. This time last year for example, Cornwall was unreachable by rail, as parts of the line at Dawlish had been destroyed by stormy seas. Herein lies the problem, as it is often difficult to attribute ‘bad’ weather exclusively to climate change. However, these storms marked an unprecedented assault on British flood defences, one that they were clearly not equipped to handle.
Perhaps sparked by the floods, the general opinion on climate change seems to have undergone a metamorphosis. These floods have brought global warming firmly into the public consciousness, making it more than just an issue for the next generation. During a period for festivities, thousands of people have suffered miserably. While the rest of Britain celebrated, a substantial minority spent the month of Christmas trying to salvage their homes and lives.
Unsurprisingly then, climate change scepticism in the UK is at its lowest for a decade, as found by a study conducted by the Understanding Risk team at Cardiff University. Furthermore, a large majority (72 per cent) of respondents felt that climate change in the future might have similar effects. Of course, the floods and these findings may simply be linked by correlation, rather than causation. Regardless, they show that support for international policies on climate change and pollution would likely be high; people are ready to be engaged on the issue of global warming.
Evidence suggests these floods are not isolated events, but occurring in a web of global warming and ocean conditions. Rapid warming in the Arctic is having a two-fold effect on the jet stream, a channel of air which travels round the northern hemisphere. Higher temperatures lead to it undulating more; a lack of contrast between the coldest and warmest air means it is weaker and more prone to deflection. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet has led to an unusually cold patch of water, and in skating around the edges of this area, the jet stream is orientated in a south-west to north-east direction. This unfortunately catches northern England. Furthermore, rising global temperatures and resultant humidity are compounding the issue.
“The additional atmospheric moisture causes deluges to become even more intense”, says Richard Allan, a meteorologist at the University of Reading. The evidence would suggest that Britain’s flood risk will only increase over the next decade.
International agreements to limit climate change are necessary, and the outcomes of the Paris summit currently being negotiated and finalised will have a large role to play. However, in the short term it is not clear what action can be taken to limit damage by flooding. Pouring money into flood defences may not be an entirely preventative solution, but appears to be the only one currently available. And, as David Cameron pointed out whilst visiting Carlisle in December, these defences have averted several smaller floods in recent months. It is worthwhile to remember also that flood defences are a justifiable investment even if they can only delay the onset of damage, giving people time to gather important belongings and move to safety.
In the case of flooding, prevention is ultimately cheaper than cure. It has been reported that every £1 spent on forestalling damage saves £10 that would have been spent on repairs. Perhaps ecologically smart solutions (such as more trees being planted uphill to reduce the risk of downstream flooding) are the answer. Fast tracking houses to be built on flood plains almost certainly is not. Echoing this, international and regional solutions must be integrated and cohesive, if they are to provide adequate defenses for the future.