Floods in the UK are getting worse. There’s not much we can do it about it. It’s caused by climate change, which in turn is caused by human beings. It’s payback time.
There you go. In one paragraph, I’ve saved you having to read British newspapers or watch British TV news for the next few days. Of course, the recent flooding is a nightmare for those affected. It’s also a dream for lazy TV news editors who want to plonk their reporters in front of some interesting backdrop offering trite statements about a human-interest story. But the discussion about the causes of the floods and whether we can – or should – do anything about them is rather more worrying than TV’s dumbed-down ‘news values’.
The rainfall over the past two months certainly appears to have been exceptional. The jet stream, a band of winds six miles up, is currently flowing faster than usual. It is driven by the temperature difference between the areas north and south of it; this temperature difference has been particularly large this year. In North America, the oddities of the jet stream are bringing unusually cold weather. In Europe, it means stronger-than-usual storms and heavy precipitation – rain in relatively mild Britain, Ireland and France, snow further east. The centre of Ireland’s second city, Cork, has been flooded and severe gales have battered France; tens of thousands of homes in Slovenia lost electricity after heavy snowfalls. In the UK, parts of the western county of Somerset have been flooded for weeks and now flooding is spreading east along the path of the river Thames to areas west and south of London.
A briefing published by the UK Met Office earlier this month highlights just how unusual the weather is at present. ‘Although no individual storm can be regarded as exceptional, the clustering and persistence of the storms is highly unusual. December and January were exceptionally wet. For England and Wales this was one of, if not the most, exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years. The two-month total (December + January) of 372.2mm for the south-east and central southern England region is the wettest any two-month period in the series from 1910.’ It’s the conveyor belt of stormy weather, rather than any particular individual event, which is causing the problems. The ground is already soaked and rivers are already high; further rainfall has nowhere to go but out on to the flood plains.
However, a quick look at the Met Office briefing shows that while rainfall in southern England in January was very exceptional, it is hard to glean any particular overall pattern – other than that rainfall is very variable.