Extreme UK Weather Linked to Global Warming

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Britain has never been known for its salubrious climate, but the past two months have seen the island nation endure sustained rainfall and flooding virtually without precedent.

A government minister was quoted by AFP as saying that ”the winter was the wettest since King George III was on the throne, from 1760-1820,” with the U.K. Meteorological Office confirming that ”regional statistics suggest that this is one of, if not the most, exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years.”

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Among other records, also as reported by AFP:

“Parts of the region received five months of rainfall between December 12 and January 31. The rainy winter has set records tumbling, being the wettest combined period for December and January across the United Kingdom since 1910, the Met Office said. It was also the windiest December since 1969, based on the occurrence of winds over 111 kilometres per hour (69 miles per hour). 
For England alone it was the wettest December to January since 1876-1877 and the second wettest since rainfall records began in 1766.” A bout of rain and floods that struck over the past few days was officially the fourth such wave of the season. Over 5,000 homes have been damaged since December; counties in the south-west of England, such as Somerset (birthplace of this blogger) have been particularly hard-hit, with a large earth bank constructed to protect the town of Bridgwater.
But London and its environs have not been immune, either: over the weekend, the UK Environment Agency issued 14 severe flood warnings (meaning “danger to life”) along the River Thames, and the Thames Barrier — built to protect the capital from storm surges, following a 1953 flood that killed over 300 people – has been closed 28 times since 6 December, almost one-fifth of its total closures since becoming operational in 1982.

Perhaps inevitably, there has been carping among politicians and government agencies, with one Conservative Party minister blaming the head of the Environment Agency (from the opposition Labor Party) of providing poor advice on flood management, and another politician calling the same agency head “a little git” and threatening to “stick his head down the loo and flush.”

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A since-suspended member of the United Kingdom Independence Party blamed it all on the government legalizing same-sex marriages and thus bringing down the wrath of God.

A report published this weekend by the Met Office, however, pointed to more earthly causes.

Noting that the British flooding coincided with the extreme cold spell in parts of Canada and the United States, the report observes that both “were linked to a persistent pattern of perturbations to the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean and North America,” and that this in turn was driven by “enhanced rainfall over Indonesia and the tropical West Pacific associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region.”

This climatalogical context, it observed, is "unusual, with the Atlantic jet stream being more intense and reaching further back into the tropical East Pacific than normal. Those factors in themselves would allow warmer and moister air to enter the storm systems. It is also the case that the sub-tropical Atlantic is now warmer than it was several decades ago and that too would act to enhance the moisture content of the storms."

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The report states that not only is there evidence of greater intensity — as a result of such increased temperature and moisture — in Atlantic storms, but that other climate-related changes make Britain more vulnerable to such storms’ impacts:

“Sea level along the English Channel has already risen by about 12 cm (4.7 inches) in the last 100 years. With the warming we are already committed to over the next few decades, a further 11-16 cm of sea level rise is likely by 2030. This equates to 23-27 centimeters (9-10½ inches) of total sea level rise since 1900.”

The natural variability in Britain’s mercurial weather makes it difficult to come to any definitive conclusion about the extent of the role of climate change in this year’s storms, says the Met Office. However, the lessons for the future are clear:

“There is an increasing body of evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly heavy rain events.”  

Photo: Residents looking down flooded Bridge Street in Witney, Oxfordshire, England, in 2007. Credit: Y.m.oxon/Wikimedia Commons 

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