Is the climate change prediction of more frequent warm and wet winters becoming an early UK reality? If so, what can be done and what would be the true cost of building resilience into the national infrastructure? Jon Herbert looks at a soggy mess.
If a single phenomenon unites the often disunited United Kingdom, it is exposure to destructive and exceedingly wet autumn-winter storms. Carlisle in 2005. Tewkesbury and Yorkshire in 2007. Tewkesbury again in 2012. Somerset in 2014. And now Lancashire and Cumbria in 2015. Wales and Scotland have also faced extremely adverse conditions.
The result is an economic blow. However, it could also be argued that short-term reparation work, plus building much more long-term resilience into the national infrastructure, is an economic opportunity — depending on the key question of where funding comes from. Britain’s sorry dilemma is largely due to its unfortunate position under the jet stream — one of four major high-altitude narrow but fast air flows moving west to east some 11 kilometres above the surface in the troposphere. (Jupiter and Saturn have even more destructive jet streams). Jet streams occur on the shifting boundary of warm and cold air masses caught in the planet’s natural spin. Until recently, the northern polar front jet stream was more likely to flow north nearer to Iceland at this time of year. However, increasingly it acts like a giant hosepipe with a whipping end that next year could drop a deluge over the Northern Isles or central London — or both or neither.
Factors affecting the course of the jet stream are complex and still largely conjecture. Increasingly, the world weather is seen to be a connected mechanism whereby what happens in, say, the South Pacific can affect Europe shortly afterwards. However, they conform to the prediction that Britain can expect more frequent warm wet winters in the foreseeable future.
El Niño plays rough
The World Meteorological Organisation warned recently that the El Niño weather event will gain strength at the end of 2015 and moving into 2016. It predicted that 2015 will be amongst the three strongest El Niño years recorded since 1950. Severe droughts and floods will push parts of the world into “uncharted territory” it forecasts.
El Niño is a natural event that sees the mass movement of warm water west to east across the Pacific Ocean up to the coast of the Americas every two to seven years. There is evidence that El Niño events were virtually non-existent during the Ice Age; global warming could see frequent or even near constant El Niño patterns in the future, threatening the survival of the Amazon rainforests and altering the world’s weather on a cataclysmic scale.
Five UK climate change impacts
Environment Secretary Liz Truss acknowledges that climate change could “potentially” be behind floods affecting England, Scotland and Wales, although the Government finds “no clear trend” in annual rainfall levels. However, it notes that summer rainfall is less than in pre-industrial times, while winter precipitation has increased.
The Grantham Institute at Imperial College, London, says that Western Europe is well-known for its variable weather. One concession is that warmer air will inevitably carry more water which must fall over somebody as heavier rain. However, hotter weather is likely to affect southern England more and northern UK less as the years go by, says the Government.
Conversely, the Gulf Stream, which keeps the UK some five degrees warmer in winter, could slow down in a warming world and lead ironically to colder UK temperatures. Sea-level rises for the UK are expected to be between 13cm and 76cm by 2095, according to climate projections in 2009. Storm swells hitting England’s south coast could be 10 to 1800 times more common by 2100.
One of the largest impacts could be on the NHS, which faces a 20% rise in heat-related deaths in the 2020s compared to the 2000s. This could rise by 540% by the 2080s, according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Meanwhile, warm winters could see mortality rates fall by 12% by the 2080s.
Wildlife could also be at severe increased risk; traditional crops may be more difficult to grow. The optimistic believe that peaches, maize and sunflowers will be replacement crops.
Most striking is the sheer weight of water that the atmosphere is able to lift and transport over thousands of miles in just days. Wild rivers that shake bridges which have stood firm for decades, boulder fields moved for miles, demolished stone walls, plucked tarmac and debris at unbelievable heights above the normal river flow are awesome sights. Once flows exceed some two metres per second, their scouring and particle moving force is formidable.
The social effects are equally unnerving. Power cuts mean no street lights, traffic lights, open petrol stations, operating mobile phone masts, internet access or shops. Streets are in total darkness and silent except for triggered house alarms. Cyber-attacks could do no worse.
If climate change theory is now being seen in hard practice, what can be done? The Government is already committed to flood defence spending and has advanced a further £51 million to support Cumbria and Lancashire households and businesses.
In December 2014, the pre-election government announced a six-year £2.3 billion flood defence programme. Ironically or prophetically, this said that homes, businesses and farmland from Lancashire to Essex would have better protection. The move was said to be the first ever long-term investment programme to protect more than 300,000 properties, reduce flood risk by 5% and, importantly, save the economy £2.7 billion by 2021. Lifetime benefits were predicted to be more than £30 billion. Some 1400 projects would allow local authorities to plan ahead and reassure communities that local flood risks are being reduced.
That promise might seem a bit hollow now. However, many new flood defence schemes worked well but were overpowered by the sheer force of Storm Desmond; unfortunately, in some instances, new defence works actually penned water in that would otherwise have drained away.
There is also a growing realisation that, while strategic steps can offset much foreseeable damage, the huge unpredictability of modern weather could make it beyond the power of government and the nation to protect communities, people and livelihoods. This doesn’t help households with little prospect of selling their homes and moving on. The wider question is what the UK can do to build deep resilience into key pieces of national infrastructure such as safeguarding coastal power stations against high tides and unprecedented storm surges.
Preparing for the unthinkable
Beating the weather and climate falls into three phases. Taking steps to counteract the immediate impacts of storms or droughts is mitigation. Building more in-depth resistance — resilience — means reinforcing, replacing or duplicating vulnerable systems. This is step two. The third step involves facing up to, and living with, many of the consequences. This is adaptation which, it has been estimated, could half the economic cost of climate change damage.
A key government role under the Climate Change Act 2008 is to set up a framework in which reiteration cycles of risk-assessment, action, monitoring, reassessment and progress can take place. The Government also has the responsibility to make local authorities, communities, businesses, planners and infrastructure investors change their behaviour to offset climate change.
This falls into several stages. The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) is a grand five-yearly audit of risk and mitigation opportunities. The first CCRA in 2012 found that, without adaptation, more flood damage, disruption, water resource stress, health risks from soaring summer temperatures and ecosystem damage would harm society. The next CCRA in 2017, carried out by the Adaptation Sub-committee (ASC) of the Committee on Climate Change, will advise the Government on how to optimise its strategy.
The next stage is the National Adaptation Programme (NAP) — the Government’s long-term strategy framework to respond to the CCRA. The first was published in 2013 and will also be updated every five years. NAP involves encouraging the building of increased resilience to climate extremes. Not constructing houses in vulnerable areas is an example.
The third stage is the UK Adaptation Reporting Powers that oblige local authorities to explain what action they are taking. The ASC stresses that mitigation and adaptation must work together. One example is changing consumer demand patterns. Better urban planning, more open spaces to absorb rainfall, strategies to deal with heat waves — when they come again — and more resilient roads, railway lines, water, wastewater and power plants are needed.
Published by Croner-i on 5 January 2016