Severe flooding 'could become commonplace' by end of this century

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

Diana Mallows, 90, is rescued from her home in North Curry near Taunton, Somerset Credit: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

I stood on the bank of the River Severn in Worcester last night - at least it WAS a bank before yesterday when it suddenly became an ad-hoc lake as the river flooded.

Across the country, rivers have burst their banks and hundreds of people have been forced from their homes. Tragically, some people have died as well.

In the years and decades ahead, all the signs point to the likelihood that disastrous floods are going to become more common.

One expert, Professor Nigel Arnell from Reading University, puts it this way: By the end of the century, dangerous floods that currently happen once every 20 years are going to be happening every other year.

The question everyone asks - "is climate change causing all these floods?". Well, it is not that simple, but broadly speaking the answer seems to be yes.

Sandbags and pumps work to keep the River Ouse from flooding York city centre Credit: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Weather scientists say the floods we are currently suffering are linked to changes in the position of the jet stream - a band of fast-moving air 8-10 kilometres high.

This is much further south than normal and that brings what they call "atmospheric rivers" of moist sub-tropical air across the Atlantic to Britain. That is where all this rain comes from.

And it is causing floods because we've had a wet summer and autumn so the ground is saturated; because we've concreted our front gardens; because we haven't spent enough on flood defences; and lots of other reasons.

A flood defence in the town of Upton upon Severn, Worcestershire. Defences like these could become a more common sight. Credit: David Davies /PA Wire

But look beyond these local factors to longer term trends.

As Professor Arnell puts it: In the last 50 years there has been a "clear trend in the UK towards more heavy precipitation events".

That is just what the climate scientist's computer models of climate change have been predicting for some years.

It looks more and more likely that climate change, whether you think it is man-made or not, is at the root of these floods.

David Boazman looks out of the window of his flooded pub in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire Credit: David Davies /PA Wire

The autumn of 2000, when there was widespread flooding, was the wettest on record. Professor Arnell calculates that climate change made it two or three times more likely.

We had better start learning quickly how to live with such uncomfortable truths.