Flooding is Wales' biggest threat from climate change, scientist warns

2,765 properties were flooded in Wales during Storm Dennis. Credit: PA Images

Flooding is Wales' biggest threat as a result of climate change, a climate scientist has warned on the second anniversary of Storm Dennis.

Professor Tom Rippeth, a physical oceanographer from Bangor University, believes declining Arctic sea ice could be contributing towards more extreme Welsh weather events.

In February 2020, thousands of homes and businesses were devastated in what became one of the worst storms to hit Wales in recent history.

During its peak, 89 flood warnings, 61 flood alerts and two severe flood warnings were issued by Natural Resources Wales - more warnings for rivers at any one time than ever before.

South Wales saw the worst of the flooding, but large areas in the north had been badly flooded during Storm Ciara several days prior. Another named storm, Jorge, brought more flooding shortly after Dennis.

It resulted in the wettest February and the fifth wettest month ever recorded in Wales and the UK.

In Wales, 224 properties flooded during Storm Ciara, 2,765 properties during Storm Dennis, and 141 during Storm Jorge, which came shortly after.

One of those properties was the home of Joolz Stewart, in Aberdulais, Neath Port Talbot.

88 properties in the Neath Port Talbot area were flooded during Storm Dennis, Natural Resources Wales data shows.

'I've woken up dreaming of flooding, it's affected us that badly'

Canalside in Aberdulais was one of the worst affected areas during Storm Dennis. Credit: Joolz Stewart

Joolz and her husband, Jeff, have lived on a street of terraced houses by the canal and close to the River Neath for 15 years.

But this year they are "heartbroken" to be moving away from the area - all because of the anxiety and stress caused by the increased threat of floods.

"I cannot sleep. If we've got a flood warning or there's really heavy rain, it's just pointless trying and I'll stay downstairs," Joolz said.

"If I'm out of the house, I've got to go back and check everything's okay, and it's not about material things, it's about safety.

"Anxiety and stress have just been huge, to the point where I thought I would never, ever move from that street, but unfortunately that's where we're going."

Joolz and her husband Jeff say they are "heartbroken" to be moving house - but feel they have no choice. Credit: Joolz Stewart

Joolz said flooding has "without a doubt" become more frequent in her area in recent years.

"When we bought the house 15 years ago we asked the neighbours whether it floods, we were reassured no and we moved in and it was paradise for those first 10-plus years.

"Then Storm Callum hit in 2018. It was at that time we were starting to hear more about global warming, and that storm was just unbelievable.

"Since then we've watched the rivers rise and had flood after flood. It's so scary.

"I've woken up dreaming of flooding, it's affected us that badly. So to hear it's getting worse, I can't imagine anything worse than what we've had but the reality is that's the truth.

"People say climate change is not really affecting us - I can tell you it's affecting me, it's affecting our street."

Flooding is expected to become more frequent due to climate change - with research showing how melting sea ice could be playing a role. Credit: PA Images

'The warming atmosphere above the Arctic is impacting the weather systems of the entire northern hemisphere'

Joolz's fears about the future are not unfounded - climate scientists have been warning that extreme weather events like flooding will become the new normal for years.

Professor Tom Rippeth has been investigating the role of climate change in Wales' increasingly extreme weather for around a decade.

He believes melting Arctic sea ice could be one of the contributing factors. Sea ice plays an important role in regulating heat between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Because ice is highly reflective, some of the solar energy bounces off it and back up into space, preventing warming of the atmosphere.

But if an area of ice is replaced by water or land, it reflects less and absorbs more energy, resulting in a warmer planet.

Over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by 95%, according to WWF. Credit: PA Images

On average, an additional area of sea ice equivalent to around four times the size of Wales is lost each summer, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

"The Arctic Ocean is turning from being ice-covered to having more and more ocean which is open water, so instead of reflecting the sun's rays it's putting infrared radiation in the atmosphere," Professor Rippeth said.

"The atmosphere above the Arctic is warming up more than twice the rate of anywhere else on the planet. That's going to influence the weather systems of the entire northern hemisphere.

"Scientists think it no coincidence that increased occurrence of 'weird' or severe weather, including floods, wildfires, the 'Beasts from the East' winter freezes and heatwaves in northern Europe have coincided with the sea ice decline over the past 15 years."

WWF has warned that if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040.

The River Neath reached record levels during Storm Dennis. Credit: Joolz Stewart

'What the lockdown and Covid pandemic have shown us is a sweetener of how bad climate change could be'

Of course, Wales is not the only nation to be experiencing more extreme weather.

Last summer, Greece was ravaged by wildfires after the country was baked by its worst heat wave in three decades.

In January 2021, Storm Filomena brought record-breaking levels of snowfall not seen in Spain for half a decade.

But Professor Rippeth explained why Wales could be particularly vulnerable to more flooding.

"There are a number of factors - one is that we're on the west, so we get the full force of the Atlantic storms," he explained.

"Then because of the mountains and hills a lot of our rivers are quite short and therefore have a short runoff, so the water doesn't take long to get from the top of the mountain to the sea, which is normally fine.

"But if you have a huge amount of water in a short space of time, there's no storage capacity. That makes land flooding, like what we saw in the south Wales valleys, more problematic."

Scientists are warning that more extreme weather events will affect our ability to travel and socialise. Credit: PA Images

He said increasingly severe weather could have a profound impact on how people in Wales live their lives.

"It might affect them, it might affect their relatives, their families, their ability to work, their ability to travel.

"Some people have said that what the lockdown and Covid pandemic have shown us is a sweetener of how bad climate change could be.

"Okay, it wouldn't stop you socialising, but it could cause big restrictions in our ability to move around and to work.

"For example, the A55 will not get washed away over night, but there will be an increasing chance that severe weather causes damage and it gets blocked."

Rising sea levels are increasing the probability of storms damaging coastal areas. Credit: PA Images

'We need to be creating custodians of our climate'

Professor Rippeth also said rising sea levels are increasing the probability of storms causing the flooding of coastal communities.

He believes the creation of tidal lagoons - like the £1.7 billion tidal lagoon project that has been announced in Swansea - could control sea levels and better protect coastlines.

"We also need to look at the way we manage uplands," he added.

"But doing things to fight climate change have to be of benefit to the people it most affects. So it's no good saying to upland farmers that they can't keep their sheep there anymore, and take their livelihood away.

"You've got to develop systems where it benefits them to move in that direction as well. We need to be creating custodians of our climate."

Professor Rippeth is carrying out research to help develop systems that will be able to predict the jet stream further in advance.

This technology would aim to enable forecasts to determine seasonal weather, giving people more time to prepare.

Pontypridd suffered such devastating floods during Storm Dennis it was paid a royal visit by Prince Charles. Credit: PA Images

'We know that so much more needs to be done to prepare ourselves to face our future reality'

A review into the flooding by Natural Resources Wales, which issues and manages flood forecasts, found its operations had been stretched and hampered its ability to react to "rapidly escalating and unforeseen events on the ground".

Two years on, it has echoed Professor Rippeth's warning - describing record-breaking floods as no longer an exception, but the new reality.

Clare Pillman, chief executive, said: "Flooding is a deeply personal tragedy, and our thoughts continue to be with those still recovering and rebuilding.

"But as more and more communities affected by flooding each year count the cost of lost belongings, ruined homes and businesses, and as people live with lingering fears of future storms, we know that so much more needs to be done to prepare ourselves to face our future reality."

Natural Resources Wales said it has invested in further flood defences, its incident response teams, improved its systems and carried out maintenance and repairs where necessary.

It is also developing a flood map for planning and development, which shows area that could be at risk of flooding, including in relation to climate change.

Hundreds of people had to be rescued from their homes during Storm Dennis. Credit: PA Images

'By working together, we have greater potential to mitigate against the impacts'

The Welsh Government said it has provided additional funding that will protect hundreds of thousands of homes.

"Science tells us that floods, landslides, storm events, heatwaves and drought will continue to increase and intensify as our world gets warmer and, unfortunately, we have already seen the impact of changing weather in Wales," a spokesperson said.

"Climate change resilience and adaption plans are embedded into all of our work and, this year, we’re providing £65m – the highest amount in a single year – to local authorities and Natural Resources Wales to help them invest in new flood defences, maintenance works and natural flood management schemes.

"Last year we also issued a 'call to arms' to plant 86 million trees which, as well as capturing carbon to help fight climate change,  will also act as natural flood defences in our rural and vulnerable communities."

Ms Pillman added: "While we welcome the additional funding NRW has received to increase our own capacity to prepare for and respond to these eventualities, we accept that we will never win the war against the forces of nature alone.

"But by working together, we have greater potential to mitigate against the impacts. Difficult decisions will need to be made, and it will take time, significant effort and a cultural and a behavioural shift to make the difference required."