2012 was a year of weather extremes with drought conditions in many areas at the beginning followed by months of record breaking rain. Widespread flooding across much of the UK caused fatalities and excessive damage to properties and infrastructure. Increased development on floodplains could be increasing the risk of flooding at a time when the climate is changing unpredictably.
In April, shortly after hosepipe bans were put in place in England, the skies opened and rain began to fall, which has persisted almost continuously ever since. Flooding occurred as rivers burst banks and run-off from fully saturated ground was rapid. In North Wales there were disruptions to transport networks, evacuations, and the deaths of a young couple near Wrexham and a pensioner in St Alsaph. The south west of England saw widespread flooding at the end of the year with more fatalities and the cancellation of trains causing chaos over Christmas.
Insurance companies estimated the cost of claims at £1.3 billion while the National Farmers Union predicted losses of £600 million from poor harvests and £700 million in extra costs to feed cattle. These are alarming figures for those affected. Yet George Osbourne has recently cut the Environment Agency’s (EA) budget which follows the trend in reduced spending on flood defences since 2008. Exacerbating the situation is the relaxation of planning regulations leading to more development on floodplains. During the last 10 years 21,000 homes and businesses were built annually within floodplains, 10% of which was against EA flood advice.
In July, the UK government’s independent Committee on Climate Change reported that 4 times as many properties would be at risk of flooding in England in future if no measures are taken in response to climate change. During the last decade Europe has warmed 1.3 °C and witnessed an increase in precipitation in the north, including the UK.
Also of particular concern to the UK are the fluctuations of the jet stream of warm air which flows across the Atlantic at high altitude helping to maintain a relatively hospitable climate in these isles. This stream has been forced off its traditional path recently and was partially responsible for the cold, wet weather that dominated 2012. An emerging scientific theory has postulated that rapidly melting Arctic ice is causing drastic fluctuations in the course of the jet stream which is likely to produce colder, wetter weather in the UK.