As the UK faced three named storms in a week, causing major flooding both nationally and regionally, the increased impact of extreme weather caused by the climate crisis is now evident.
Before the media gaze shifts away entirely from flood-impacted towns and businesses in Yorkshire, an evaluation of the financial cost of the long-term damage, as well as mitigation plans, needs to begin.
Impact on cultural history
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal suffered extensive flooding owing to Storm Franklin, which necessitated the closure of the site on Monday 21 February. Fountains Abbey was also in the national press in 2021, where it was highlighted as being at risk from climate change and is one of the National Trust’s own target sites, after its vulnerability was identified. The National Trust itself states on its website that, “We’re part of the global fight against climate change. It is the single biggest threat to the precious landscapes and historic houses we care for”.
The Skell Valley Project, working in collaborative partnership with local farmers, landowners and local communities, is hoped to be a significant step forward in mitigating against the climate threat and to ensure a sustainable future for the valley and all that is contained within.
Climate crisis will increase likelihood of extreme weather events
Dr Fredi Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at Imperial College, London and a pioneer in climate attribution science, recently commented in a Guardian podcast that although it was not unusual to have winter storms, it was unusual to have three named storms in a single week. She referred to 2015, when the UK bore the brunt of Storms Desmond, Eve and Frank, but highlighted that the striking feature of the recent Storm Eunice was the ‘sting-jet’, where there were extremely high winds over a small area.
Dr Otto maintains we can say that the climate crisis is playing a part, for heatwaves and heavy rainfall events especially, and that these are becoming more frequent and more extreme. She explained that although wind speeds haven’t increased in the UK, rainfall has become more intense because of climate change and with sea levels being higher, storm surges are higher and more damaging than they would be without climate change.
In terms of resilience to these increased extreme weather events, Dr Otto focused on the need for more data and stressed the importance of early warning systems that are based on climate models that help populations know where to go and how to keep safe. She concluded by highlighting that current city and town infrastructure needs to change to help us be more climate resilient, with more green spaces, better insulated homes and no building on flood plains.
Increased rainfall more likely
The State of the UK Climate report of 2020, further points to increased rainfall and compares winter storms over the last few decades to draw out the significant increase that we have seen. As supporting data, the Met Office refers to the peer-reviewed study of Davies et al from 2021, which states bluntly that, “climate change has increased the likelihood of extremes of this nature”.
“It is adapt or die”
Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said last year:
“The climate crisis is global, but its impacts are in your village, your shop, your home. Adaptation action needs to be integral to government, businesses and communities too and people will soon question why it isn’t – especially when it is much cheaper to invest early in climate resilience than to live with the costs of inaction.
“Some 200 people died in this summer’s flooding in Germany. That will happen in this country sooner or later, however high we build our flood defences, unless we also make the places where we live, work and travel resilient to the effects of the more violent weather the climate emergency is bringing. It is adapt or die.”
How long before the next storm?
We now know that increased rainfall events are more likely owing to climate change. In the UK, we cannot just wait for the next storm to arrive before hoping that flood defences will hold. Short and long-term solutions are required to protect communities and businesses. The Skell Valley Project may help protect Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, but help is needed for towns and cities. The town of Tadcaster in Yorkshire was left reeling again, with river levels peaking at four metres and over 60 properties flooded. Sheffield had to cope with the “worst flooding since 2007”, with much of the transport infrastructure affected.
These once-in-a-decade or once-in-a-lifetime storms are now happening with such frequency that residents of affected towns barely have time to recover from the impact of the last one before the next one arrives, leading to frustration, anger and a rising sense that they have been cut adrift and are on their own.