Is UK flooding a result of climate change?

“The global warming that we have experienced so far has increased the atmosphere’s moisture storage capacity by about seven per cent. This is undisputed science and it clearly increases the potential for extreme rainfall and flooding.”
— Paul Williams, Meteorologist

According to a growing number of climate experts, the temperature and rainfall during the December 2015 floods was outside the natural variability of British weather. The temperature was 5 degrees warmer than normal, which, as Meteorologist Paul Williams explains to the right, can account for a higher level of water vapour. 

Experts say the economic impact of the December 2015 floods was in the region of £6 billion.

Flooding hits the most vulnerable groups disproportionately, with the elderly and people with disabilities being the biggest groups within this category. According to Friederike Otto at Oxford University, severe flood events like the storms of December 2015 are now roughly 40 per cent more likely due to climate change than it was in the past.

This picture is taken from the Morpeth Floods in 2015. Hope for the Future met with Morpeth's local MP, Ian Lavery. Read the blog here. 

This picture is taken from the Morpeth Floods in 2015. Hope for the Future met with Morpeth's local MP, Ian Lavery. Read the blog here

What could climate change mean for flooding in the future?

The UK Climate Projections of 2009 estimated a sea-level rise of between 13cm and 76cm for the UK by 2095.

The Royal Institute of British Architects estimates that:

  • 1.5% of the UK is at risk from direct flooding from the sea and about 7% of the country is likely to flood at least once a century from rivers.
  • About 1.7m homes and 130,000 commercial properties are at risk from river or coastal flooding in England alone.
  • The effects of flooding and managing flood risk cost the country about £2.2bn a year, compared with the less than £1bn spent on flood protection and management.

A further 2.8m properties are susceptible to surface-water flooding alone, meaning that living in a coastal area or river catchment is not the only place where flooding can happen. It is a widespread problem, and the problems will increase with the projection of increased rainfall.

What sectors can flooding impact? 

Economy: Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, explains that flooding could decrease economic gains in the future in terms of businesses not being able to open, loss of agricultural output, people not being able to get to the shops and travel.

Farming: Many farmers have been struggling with flooded fields and ruined crops. Transport problems have also made it difficult to get supplies such as bedding and feed to livestock farmers.

Energy: Some energy companies have to bring in extra engineers to restore power (which you could say is beneficial for jobs) but they also must pay compensation to those whose supplies were interrupted.

Tourism: VisitEngland has warned that floods would force many visitors, both international and domestic, to cancel travel plans.

What is being done to reduce the impacts of flooding?

In September 2016, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom set out how lessons learnt from last winter’s floods have helped build a new approach to flooding:

‘Last winter we saw just how devastating flooding can be. Work is already underway towards £12.5 million of new temporary defences stationed around England, better protection for our infrastructure and new flood modelling that makes better use of data and technology. We are absolutely committed to reducing the risk of flooding by investing £2.5 billion up to 2021 so we can help protect families, homes and businesses this winter.’

Although the Government has made this investment into flood defences, more is needed in order to increase the UK's flood resilience. Ideally, spending on flood defences would have to increase by £10-30 million plus inflation annually to maintain existing levels of flood protection to 2035. More funds of around £150m a year will also be needed for surface and groundwater flooding. These total costs could rise to as much as £27bn a year by 2080 (Guardian, 2014). 

There is a new government backed insurance scheme called the ‘Flood Re Scheme,’  which was launched in April 2016 prompted by the Christmas 2015 floods. Flood Re has been set up to help households in flood risk areas to have access to affordable home insurance. Flood Re is a world first scheme, designed to reduce home insurance premiums for over 350,000 homes in flood risk areas.

Eight community foundations in areas affected by flooding have set up funds to support those whose homes, businesses and lives were impacted.