The news in the UK over the holiday period has been dominated by flooding in the north of England and Scotland. While most people were revelling in Christmas festivities, thousands of families saw their homes swamped with water as rivers broke their banks in Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland, Yorkshire and parts of Scotland. Pictures of streets looking more like rivers have been all too frequent over recent years, as one flooding event has followed another. December’s record-breaking rainfall was a product of a string of Atlantic depressions associated with warmer and wetter conditions in the northern hemisphere, probably related to El Niño (the reversal of the southern Pacific Ocean current bringing warmer waters to the Americas).
One thing that was different about the December floods was that back in September the UK Met Office and Ireland’s Met Éireann made the decision to give names to Atlantic depressions, in alphabetical order and alternating male and female names, as is done in the US with the tracking of tropical storms and hurricanes. Come December, newspaper headlines led with warnings of the encroaching storms Desmond, Eva and Frank. It is worth asking why the Met Office elected to do this, and whether this reveals anything new about our relationship with wet and windy weather.
In its own words, the Met Office reports that naming storms is a pilot study to ‘raise awareness of extreme weather before it strikes’, in the hope of keeping people, ‘their property and businesses safe’. Back in September, nobody was predicting the record-breaking precipitation that has hit the north of England and Scotland, with some places receiving 200 to 300 per cent of their average rainfall for the time of year. On the one hand, it is possible to see the practical benefits of tracking depressions (areas of low air pressure) through the use of names (although meteorologists already do this with letters). On the other hand, the naming of depressions appears to be more for the benefit of the public than weather forecasters. Adopting a practice which in the US is used to track potential hurricanes does smack of trying to big-up the weather over the British Isles.
Tropical storms are larger and contain more energy because they develop over warmer tropical water (greater than 27 degrees Celsius). The energy from the warm water feeds the developing vortex at the centre of the storm, which may or may not grow into a hurricane (or in Asia, a typhoon) depending on oceanic and atmospheric conditions and the path of the storm. Some of the depressions that reach the British Isles are remnants of hurricanes and other storms that originated in tropical regions, but their energy is dissipated as they travel over cooler waters. It is extremely rare for hurricanes to reach our shores – the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987 being one exception.
While it may be no consolation to people whose houses and streets have been flooded, Atlantic depressions are not of the same magnitude and do less damage than tropical storms and hurricanes. Giving them names, in the same way hurricanes are given names, elevates their significance in order to make us more ‘aware’ of potentially extreme weather. This fits a pattern in which our relationship to the weather is continually interpreted through the lens of global warming and risk management. Today, weather is not just something that happens and is mostly beyond our control. Instead, we view weather, especially extreme events, as somehow connected to the way we live our lives. While human activity has contributed to a warming planet, this does not make us responsible for any given storm or flooding event. Climate change is a matter of government policy, and is reinforced across society with messages of how we need to reduce our carbon footprint to tackle global warming. Therefore, it is no wonder that flooding gets interpreted as a failure of policy, and results in a subsequent search for somebody to blame.