Weather CRISIS as seasons set to switch with flooding in summer

And the heat isn’t going away any time soon. Yesterday forecasters were predicting hot conditions into next week – after a little torrential rain – with some UK locations hitting six degrees above September’s average. This is particularly galling as traditional summer holiday treats such as sun-soaked picnics or splashing about in paddling pools proved few and far between this year, and many a staycationer had cause to wish they’d packed brollies and windbreaks along with the Factor 50 and the parasols.

In late July “freak” heavy rainfall closed Tube stations and left Londoners knee-deep in water. And in August many in Germany and Europe had it even worse with deadly floods.

As a professional flood forecaster, my scientific analysis is this… get used to it. Because, thanks to the effects of climate change, the traditional seasons are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

In short, our weather has become more unpredictable; where once Britain enjoyed chilly winters, long dry summers and misty, damp autumns, we are now experiencing higher temperatures and more frequent episodes of heavy, intense rain leading to extreme flooding in all seasons.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which collates all of the newest evidence on climate change, shows that weather is getting more extreme all around the world.

Extreme “rainfall events”, which previously happened once every 10 years on average are now expected to occur 1.3 times every 10 years. And, as the climate continues to warm, they will become even more frequent in the future.

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This is all backed up by hard evidence from the Met Office in its latest State of the UK Climate Report which confirms that our weather is changing. Temperature, rainfall and sunshine totals for 2020 were all in the top 10 highest on record – the first time that has ever happened in a single year.

This stark reality shows that climate change is not something that might affect Britain at some point in the future. It’s here. We are already living with it.

And as for the global picture, well, every week seems to bring headline-making storms, wildfires, heatwaves and floods – from New York to Germany and Greece. This is our new normal.

So why is this happening? It can all be traced back to the rise in the global temperature. Warm air holds more water. You can see this when you get out of the shower and the warm air hits a cold mirror. Water droplets form.

A warming climate means there is more water in the air, which means when it rains, it rains more intensely therefore greatly increasing the chances of floods.

Which is why these devastating images from around the world should be a wake-up call for us all. The flash floods we have already experienced are very likely to be a taster of what is to come.

People have lost their homes and their livelihoods, but thankfully very few Britons have lost their lives so far. Look at the recent disasters in Germany, China and America to see what could be to come. The question is, are we prepared for this change in weather? My own observations indicate that we are not.

Governments and local authorities have been repeatedly caught out by the scale and magnitude of these events, and the flood warning and response systems did not work as effectively as they could have.

Like New York and Zhengzhou, which suffered terrifying and fatal subway and basement flooding, we have also had a reminder closer to home of how vulnerable our infrastructure is.

Not only did heavy rainfall close parts of the Underground twice in two weeks this summer, two London hospitals had to turn away patients after being flooded. Residents, including Queen guitarist Brian May, had to cope with ruined possessions and damaged property when their basements flooded.

So how do we prepare for this new normal? The first step is to acknowledge that we need to do something, which is easier said than done.

A scientific report saying climate change increases flood risk – shown as blue-shaded areas on a flood map – means very little to many people.

It is only when we see the devastating power of water, like we did in the images of New York, Turkey and Germany, that we can start to appreciate the possible impacts of a flood.

Surface water flooding like we saw in London is an even bigger challenge. Even if you don’t live near the River Thames, you can still be at risk, particularly in areas where continual development and ageing drainage systems mean that when it rains heavily the water cannot soak away.

Instead it rushes along streets and pavements searching for the quickest route downhill, whether that’s through someone’s house, hospital or Tube station.

Only once this risk is appreciated, and the experts listened to, will action be taken.

And the next step is taking practical action rather than fearing the scale of the challenge.

There is some good news in the UK where we have already done a lot to improve our preparedness for floods.

My career started during the summer floods of 2007. Do you remember the iconic images of Tewkesbury Cathedral surrounded by water, and temporary flood defences and pumps desperately trying to protect Walham substation to prevent the need to turn the power off to 500,000 houses?

Since then I’ve been involved in the development of an amazing community of professionals and community groups who are striving to improve our resilience to floods.

We have just seen record amounts of funding from the Government with £5.2billion to be spent on flood defences over the next six years.

We have embraced the use of natural flood risk management to slow the flow of water. We are continually improving the science supporting our flood maps and impact assessments to enable us to better understand the risk of flooding. We have an excellent flood forecasting and warning service that is integrated across the Met Office and Environment Agency who seek to provide clear and authoritative warnings of potential floods.

But flood defences cannot protect us from all floods, and they are not infallible. We must do more. As outlined in a recent independent assessment of UK climate risk, the gap between the level of risk faced and the level of adaptation underway has widened.

Following the experience in Germany – where scores of people died because they were still in their houses when the water started to rise around them – we need to review our own flood warning system.

We must be sure that we are sending clear messages to the right people and work together to take action in advance of floods, for example evacuating people if necessary and making sure the emergency services are prepared.

We need to re-address our planning rules. While the development of mega basements in the capital probably didn’t have a significant impact on the London floods this time, their existence highlights the fact that we cannot continue to keep developing in urban areas without consideration of the environmental impacts.

We need to think about how to make the fabric of our cities more resilient to water. We should be building cities with space for water alongside people and designing properties that can quickly be dried out and lived in again after floods.

We need to ensure our emergency response plans for our transport infrastructure are sufficient to avoid scenes like we saw on the subway in China.

We should be making personal action plans, for example, installing property level flood protection if you know you live in an area that might flood (you can check here gov.uk/check-flood-risk).

And most of all we need to appreciate that floods are dangerous. The risks of fast flowing water, hidden underwater hazards and raw sewage should never be underestimated.

Did you know that a third of flood related deaths are in vehicles? That is because just under 12 inches of flowing water is enough to move a car.

Not attempting to drive through flood water will save lives and reduce damage to surrounding properties from the resulting bow wave.

If you’re thinking there are a lot of people (like me) shouting very loudly about this at the minute, that’s because experience shows us that after events like this summer’s there is a real opportunity to build a catalyst for change.

At this point we cannot stop climate change. But we can take action to limit the rise of global temperature, and importantly we can be better prepared to live with the impacts.

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