It must have been incredibly dispiriting, and at times scary, to have spent the holidays in the north of the British Isles being inundated with torrential rain day after day as Desmond (not me!), Eva and Frank swept in from the west. Two years ago, it was the south & west that bore the brunt of the winter weather as a conveyor belt of storms rolled in off the Atlantic. The Somerset Levels, admittedly a low-lying area, spent several months under water.
December was the wettest month in more than a century with an average of 9 inches (230mm) of rain falling across the country. It was also the warmest since records began in 1910. England was almost frost-free and if you include Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland, there was less than three days of frost compared to the normal eleven. According to Professor Jennifer Francis of the Rutgers University in New Jersey, much of the shift in weather patterns is down to a change in the temperature differential between the Arctic and the temperate mid-latitudes where the UK lies.
A warner Arctic is resulting in kinks in the jet stream, that pesky high-speed current of air that blows in from the Atlantic and brings much of our weather with it. According to Prof Francis’s hypothesis, increasing rainfall in the UK is likely to become the norm in the same way as droughts in the Western United States and parts of Australia have, albeit they are affected by other systems. According to a study published in the science magazine Nature, they have reduced crop yields by up to 20% in those places. So whether this turns out to be true or not, it would be sensible to build the scenario into our plans.
Not surprisingly, those affected blame the politicians and the Environment Agency for cutting back spending on flood defence or spending more in one area than another. The figures are arguable and the Government, opposition and other interested parties have all produced statistics to support their case. The air of general frustration has been compounded still further by pictures of politicians standing around in their gumboots surrounded by angry locals or reports that the head of the agency has been sunning himself in the Caribbean instead of doing his job.
But the reality is that many of the towns and villages affected are on rivers or the confluences of rivers where there is a natural pinch point in the flow. This is hardly surprising in a country like Britain where rivers have, in the past, provided transport as well as the power to turn mill wheels including the spinning jennies that began the Industrial Revolution. And if you speed the flow of water through one town by building flood defences, it will invariably cause a problem for the next one downstream unless, of course, you’re on an estuary.
All this causes misery, disruption and chaos as well as costing a lot of money. Whatever insurance companies pay out in damages they have to recoup on way or another in premiums (ignoring profits on their investments). So what can those politicians do to mitigate the effects of the weather? One thing would be to the change planning rules for new houses and encourage property owners to “flood protect” homes and business premises as far as possible. In this they will be given a helping hand by the small print in insurance policy documents with their exclusions.
But I gather there is a more radical solution which is now doing the rounds in Whitehall, namely to change Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers so that they are encouraged to store water upstream. The result would be that farmland gets flooded and not homes. There is a simple theory behind this: it’s not the volume of water that causes the problems but the rate of run off! Most landowners are a conservative bunch and have resisted this idea in the past so it may be some time before we see the creation of sinks through extensive tree planting in upland gullies and the creation of barriers to slow down the streams and becks – but in the end, money talks.
And while we’re about it, why not release a few beavers and let them do the heavy lifting. They may not be popular with fishermen or poplar fanciers, but there is increasing evidence that they do exactly what the Government is now considering. Perhaps our furry friends will attract sponsorship from the insurance industry!