Why is Britain so prone to flooding and is climate change to blame?


ST NEOTS, CAMBRIDGESHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM - 2024/01/06: A traffic sign stands redundant as flood water covers the road at St Neots as the River Great Ouse bursts its banks. Flood alerts remain in place as waters continue to rise in the east of England following storm Henk. Main rivers the River Great Ouse and the River Nene have burst their banks and spilled onto the surrounding countryside and with drains full to capacity they are backing up in residential areas. (Photo by Martin Pope/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Why is Britain seeing so much flooding? (Getty)

Rishi Sunak has defended the government's response to latest floods blighting parts of the UK, as thousands of homes were left damaged following Storm Henk.

The Prime Minister had been accused of being "asleep at the wheel" after the storm and ensuing heavy rain in the following days left large areas of the country underwater. Homes and businesses in areas including the Midlands and parts of southern England were left damaged, while transports routes were also disrupted.

But on a visit to flood-hit Oxford on Sunday, Sunak said the government had spent £5.2bn on flood defences, protecting 49,000 homes. He told media: "Just in the community I’ve been walking around, hundreds of homes have been protected because of those investments. Of course it’s going to be devastating for those who are impacted, which is why there’s financial support in place, but overall investment that’s going into flood defences is at a very, very high level."

On Saturday, the Environment Agency said flood risks would start reducing over the weekend but predicted that "ongoing flood impacts" were likely to be seen over the following five days. In Nottinghamshire, where a major incident was declared on Thursday as water reached historic levels in some areas, one official said the consequences would be felt "for many months".

The latest flooding has heightened concerns over the effects of climate change on weather patterns and their impact.

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How many floods have there been recently?

More than than 1,000 homes were left flooded after Storm Henk hit - the third major storm this winter - with some river levels said to be at their highest in over 20 years.

Flooding was also seen during Storm Babet and Storm Ciaran at the end of 2023. In October, Storm Babet caused widespread flooding and claimed three lives. The following month, Storm Ciaran left over 100,000 homes without power, as well as causing widespread flooding and damage across the UK and Europe and forcing hundreds of schools and several airports to shut down.

The Environment Agency said the ground had been left "incredibly saturated" after both storms, which was then "topped up over the pre-Christmas period" by more rainfall, leading to more flooding and greater impacts, and "probably in areas where people aren’t used to".

Steve Turner, a hydrologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: "During December, some areas in central and northern England and eastern Scotland recorded rainfall more than 70% above average for the time of year. This has continued into January with Storm Henk – our eighth named storm of the season, which is already the highest number of storms affecting the UK to be named by January by the Met Office in a year since they started naming them in 2015. For the UK as a whole, the period between July and December 2023 was the wettest on record (in a series from 1890)."

What causes flooding?

According to the Red Cross, floods are the most common and widespread of all weather-related natural disasters to occur in the UK and overseas. It says: "Flooding happens when water overflows onto land that is normally dry. This happens during heavy rain, when ocean waves come on shore, when snow melts too fast, or when dams or levees break. They are also common after a drought, when the ground is hard and dry, making drainage difficult. These are natural causes of flooding."

In addition, flash floods are: "when rain falls so fast that the underlying ground cannot cope, or drain it away fast enough," the Met Office says. "Roads can become like rivers and if there is a lot of water, it can flood buildings and carry cars away. So, if the rain is falling too fast for the ground or drains to cope, there is a risk of flash flooding."

Professor Trevor Hoey, a Professor of River Science at Brunel University London and director of the Centre for Flood Risk and Resilience, said the UK is at risk of flooding because it is beside a large ocean and regulary gets a lot of "rain-bearing weather systems". Periodically, as over the past few months, there will be sequences of storms and prolonged rain, he said. "On top of this, we are living in an era of climate change, and there is evidence that things are getting worse as rainfall totals increase and storms become more frequent."

WORCESTERSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 05: An aerial view of flooded area as homes and streets deluged by water in aftermath of heavy rain in Worcestershire, United Kingdom on January 05, 2024. UK is grappling with a severe flooding following heavy rainfall. The extensive deluge, leaves homes and streets submerged in water. Authorities are working on response measures. (Photo by Yunus Dalgic/Anadolu via Getty Images)
An aerial view of floods in Worcestershire following heavy rainfall. (Getty)

Is climate change making flooding worse?

Many experts agree that flooding appears to be getting worse and could be attributed to climate change.

In comments published via the Science Media Centre, Professor Roger Falconer, Emeritus Professor of Water and Environmental Engineering at Cardiff University, said he had been involved in flood modelling and resilience for around 40 years and in recent years flooding appears to have been getting worse, particularly in terms of rainfall intensity and more frequent flood events.

He said: "These changes in weather patterns would appear to be as predicted by climate meteorologists and those specialising in climate change. In modelling and planning for reducing flood risk then in my view, we need to study and manage the river basin as a whole, using a systems-based approach, from the upper catchments to the coast. Based on the assessment of climate specialists we can expect more extreme flood events in the future."

Prof Ivan Haigh, Professor in Coastal Oceanography, National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton, added: "We need to recognise that flooding is going to become even more frequent and challenging to manage in the UK and elsewhere in the coming years", citing reasons including sea-level rise and changes in rainfall patterns, driven by climate change, as well as land use and land management changes and ageing flood defences.

"We are facing a perfect storm, and we need to act now and come together to improve the way we manage the large and growing threat of flooding in the UK, and elsewhere around the world," he added.

Dr Kevin Collins, Senior Lecturer Environment & Systems at the Open University, said: "Climate change is making rainfall events more intense because warmer air can carry more moisture. Globally, in mountain areas and in higher latitudes, it is estimated that extreme rain is increased by 15% for every 1 degree of warming. However, the influence of climate change on the frequency of storms in the UK remains uncertain.

“In areas which have a longer history of flooding, such as towns and villages on the River Severn and River Thames there are well developed flood defences which can cope with ‘normal’ winter floods. However, much of our infrastructure has been designed in a previous century and is being overtaken by climate change.

He added: "Looking ahead, the UK will experience more events we currently consider unprecedented or extreme – whether floods, heatwaves, droughts or storms. When it comes to planning and development of our infrastructure, we need to do less of what we’ve always done. We now need to be thinking about the systemic risks to our communities and economy and act to build resilience to these kinds of floods by accepting and adapting with the new normal of climate change."