Floods: are we really at risk and what can we do about it?

Are we seeing more floods, or are the media just reporting them more? How at risk is the UK from future floods? We’ve all seen in recent years the devastation that floods can cause, and it seems as though these events are getting more frequent, but are they really?  Over the last ten years, northern England has been hit by a series of damaging floods, with the most recent occurring in March 2010. The topic of river floods is thus timely and of high socio-economic relevance.  From York in 2000 to Carlisle in 2005, Morpeth in 2008 to Cockermouth in 2009, damage to property and people’s everyday lives has been severe.

Well, it is certainly true that in this age of the ‘Twittersphere’ coverage of disasters on the other side of the world reach us much more quickly than would have happened in the past, but there is also plenty of credible scientific evidence to suggest that flooding events are becoming more frequent in many parts of the world and will continue to increase in future.

According to the UK’s Met Office (http://www.metoffice.gov.uk), rainfall patterns across the globe have changed (generally speaking, wet places are becoming wetter while dry places are becoming dryer) and sea levels have increased by around 17cm globally since 1900, with the rate of sea-level rise also on the increase.  However, researchers closer to home at Newcastle University have been looking at these patterns and have gathered data that indicate that by the 2080s winter increases in rainfall of up to 30% and summer decreases as high as 80% may occur.  While this may not directly involve myself as a child of the 60s, it will certainly affect my grandchildren (and we all want to be a good ancestor, don’t we?!).  Things get more interesting when we consider what Fred Pearce calls the ‘hydrological multiplier’ – essentially this means that for every 10% extra rainfall that falls in a river catchment, about 30% more ends up in the river, and for every 10% less, river flows drop by some 30%.  This emphasises why climate change by itself doesn’t matter.  Yes, you read correctly; a degree or two here or there is not so important as what it will do for water – and we all depend on water.

Add to this the impact of increased urban development in many parts of the world and an increased risk of flooding follows, particularly in parts of the world already prone to extreme weather events, or for island countries such as the UK.  We are all familiar with predictions that by the 2050s (when I’ll be in my 90s) the world’s population may total some 9 billion.  Yet, how many of us were aware that 75% of this 9 billion will live in cities, with all the ramifications that entails?

Recent years have seen areas along the length of the UK hit by flash floods that have caused millions of pounds’ worth of damage and left many families displaced, facing battles over insurance cover or facing lengthy repair processes before being able to move back into their homes.  What may the effects of greatly increased flooding be on tomorrow’s mega-cities?

While much is being done in the UK to strengthen flood defences and improve flood warning systems, can more be done to help those affected by these extreme weather events?  At Newcastle, we have a wide array of expertise in flood risk forecasting, climate prediction, sustainable urban drainage systems, river management and ecological restoration.  We are experts in dealing with large outburst floods and smaller, yet locally devastating high flows.  We work with the agencies responsible for coordinating response to the events (Environment Agency, local authorities, Defra etc.).  We are experts in defining what ecological services Nature provides, including flood protection, water quality control and habitat provision as well as products we can use.

By bringing all of this expertise together across inter-disciplinary boundaries under the aegis of the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability (NIReS), we are able to develop better communication with, and within, affected communities and are looking at how recent experience can be used to improve responses to future flood events.

On 30 November, we are holding an event aimed specifically at communities affected by recent floods (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/sustainability/events/item/conference-living-with-floods-shared-experiences-from-the-north-of-england) that will listen to and draw on their experiences to inform policy-makers and help ensure a more relevant, constructive and focused debate around flood responses.

So, tell us your experiences: have you been affected by recent flooding events? What have your experiences of flood defences/flood warning systems and flood responses been? How could things be improved?

Dr Andy Large
Theme Coordinator (Terrestrial), Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability (NIReS)
Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University

Dr Andy Large, Theme Coordinator (Terrestrial)

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