Cumbria Floods : Climate Defenceless

I fully expect the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be more than modicum concerned about public opinion as the full toll of damage to property, businesses, farmland and the loss of life in Cumbria of the December 2015 floods becomes clear. The flooding in the Somerset Levels in the winter of 2013/2014 led to strong public criticism of the government’s management of and investment in flood defences.

The flood defences that were improved in Cumbria after the rainstorm disaster of 2009 were in some cases completely ineffective against the 2015 deluge. It appears that the high water mark at some places in Cumbria was higher in the 2015 floods than ever recorded previously, but that cannot be used as David Cameron’s get-out-of-jail-free clause. These higher flood levels should have been anticipated as a possibility.

However, the real problem is not the height of flooding, but the short recurrence time. Flood defences are designed in a way that admits to a sort of compromise calculus. Measurements from previous floods are used to calculate the likelihood of water levels breaching a particular height within a number of years – for example, a 1-in-20 year flood, or a 1-in-200 year flood. The reinforced flood defences in Cumbria were designed to hold back what was calculated to be something like a 1-in-100 year flood. It could be expected that if within that 100 years, other serious but not overwhelming flooding took place, there would be time for adaptation and restructuring of the defences. However, it has taken less than 10 years for a 1-in-100 year event to recur, and so no adaptation has been possible.

This should suggest to us two possibilities : either the Environment Agency is going about flood defences the wrong way; or the odds for the 1-in-100 year flood should be reset at 1-in-10-or-so years – in other words, the severity profile of flooding is becoming worse – stronger flooding is more frequent – which implies acceptance of climate change.

The anti-science wing of the Conservative Party were quick to construct a campaign against the Environment Agency in the South West of England in early 2014 – distracting people from asking the climate change question. But this time, I think people might be persuaded that they need to consider climate change as being a factor.

Placing the blame for mismanagement of the Somerset Levels at the door of the Environment Agency saved David Cameron’s skin in 2014, but I don’t think he can use that device a second time. People in Cockermouth are apparently in disbelief about the 2015 flooding. They have barely had time to re-establish their homes and lives before Christmas has been cancelled again for another year.

Will the Prime Minister admit to the nation that climate change is potentially a factor in this 2015 waterborne disaster ?

I remember watching in in credulity as the BBC showed the restoration of Cockermouth back in 2010 – it was either Songs of Praise or Countryfile – I forget which. The BBC were trying to portray a town getting back to normal. I remember asking myself – but what if climate change makes this happen again ? What then ? Will the BBC still be mollifying its viewers, lulling them back into a false sense of security about the risks of severe climate change ? What if there is no “normal” to get back to any more ? Is this partly why the Meteorological Office has decided to name winter storms ?

Can future climate-altered floods be escaped – or are the people of Britain to remain defenceless ?

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