By Paul Homewood
There was an interesting report in last Sunday’s Telegraph about recent flooding in the Somerset Levels. I’ll not reprint the whole thing, but would certainly recommend reading it.
The essence of the article is that the flooding there, which began late last month and peaked on 1st January, are the worst in living memory.
Now, anyone familiar with this part of England will know that the Levels are notorious for winter flooding, and have been since time immemorial. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, one explanation for the county of Somerset’s name is that, in prehistory, because of winter flooding people restricted their use of the Levels to the summer, leading to a derivation from Sumorsaete, meaning land of the summer people.
And, of course, King Alfred hid away from the Vikings at Athelney, in the middle of the Levels, protected by impenetrable swamps.
Consequently, when someone says “the worst in living memory”, I tend to get the pinch of salt ready! But when a farmer, whose house is flooded for the second time in just over a year, tells us that it had not been flooded for the previous 88 years, you have to treat the matter seriously. To quote the Telegraph:
For the moment, he and his partner, Linda, are living upstairs at Horsey Farm, because the ground floor of the building has been flooded.
“The carpets have gone, the floorboards will have to come up, the plaster will have to come off the walls, we will have to start all over again,” he says. They only returned to the property nine weeks ago, having been out of it since a similar flood in November 2012.
“Before that the house had not been flooded for 88 years, that’s the point,” he says. “People lived here for centuries without it being as bad as this. Something is definitely going wrong. The water levels have gone right up.”
So, is this all evidence that climate change is making floods worse, as many would have us believe? Let’s take a look at the Met Office data. I have outlined in red the rough area we are looking at .
As can be seen, although December rainfall was higher than average, it was not abnormally so. I have also included the November map, to show that that month was around or below average for Somerset, so there is no evidence of a long term build up of water.
We can also look at the December rainfall trends for SW England & S Wales. The area covered by this region is shown below. Although this region covers a wider range than just Somerset, a look at the above December map indicates that much of the region was wetter than the part we are concerned with. In other words, the regional stats probably overestimate the rainfall anomaly for Somerset.
The graph makes clear that last month’s rainfall was not unusual in any way. Since 1910, it ranks as the 19th wettest, in other words a once every 5 year event. The rain in December does not even compare with years such as 1934, when 307mm was recorded. In fact, it is noticeable that all of the really wet Decembers occurred prior to 1970.
Taking all months of the year, rather than just December, there have been 70 months with higher rainfall than December 2013. On average, therefore, the region would expect to see rainfall amounts as high as, or higher than, last month at some stage of the year every year or two.
We can also look at the stats for the local station of Yeovilton, about 20 miles to the south of the Levels, rather than the region as a whole.
The Met Office data, which runs back to 1964, shows 121mm rainfall for December 2013. However, the Telegraph article mentions that torrential rain on New Year’s Day made the floods worse, and a check with Weather Underground shows 18mm that day, so I have added that onto the Met Office’s December figure. (It is also worth pointing out that since 1st January, rainfall amounts have been close to average for January).
The resulting 139mm would represent the 14th wettest month since 1964, so about a once in three year occurrence. Given the evidence in Figure 1, it seems likely that many more such months would have occurred prior to 1964.
It is utterly clear that there has been nothing unusual about levels of rainfall, so what has been going on in Somerset? This is where the locals in Muchelney make their views plain.
There is, however, one awkward challenge that has to be made to the villagers. The Somerset Levels were built to flood. The name of the village derives from the Saxon for “great island”. If people choose to live on a historic floodplain, how can they possibly complain when it floods?
“Yes, the fields are meant to flood, but it is too much now,” says Maxine Grice, a long-time resident of Muchelney. “It comes too quickly and it stays too long. It used to happen every 10 years and it was never this deep. People have been flooded lately who never were before. It’s because the rivers haven’t been dredged over the last 20 years. They have silted up.”
Others villagers agree this is why the flood levels have risen catastrophically. They blame the Environment Agency for neglecting the local rivers, which have now silted up so much that they can only carry a third of the water they used to. The theory is that this leaves the rivers unable to cope in the rain when extra water is also sent from Taunton and Bridgwater, from where it is pumped away to protect new homes built on former floodplains.
“We are being sacrificed in order to help those towns,” says Ms Wilson-Ward. “Yes, we are a small village but we are still taxpayers, we still need to protect our houses and our businesses like everyone else. The Environment Agency need to pull their fingers out, apply for whatever money they need, start dredging, get people down here and start fixing things.”
Similar complaints have been raised many times in recent years, but this case gives us real evidence that such concerns are justified.
Whilst Somerset is only one part of the country, and the performance of the Environment Agency may be better elsewhere, it is important that, if flooding problems are to be resolved, the actual causes are identified, so they can be acted on.
It really does not help the inhabitants of Muchelney, or the thousands of others affected by floods, when David Cameron, Corinne Le Quere, Chris Smith and the rest blame them on climate change, and think that building lots of wind farms will make things better.
Perhaps some of the money spent fighting climate change should be diverted to repairing our neglected flood defences and drainage systems.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier hiding behind excuses than taking the responsibility to do something about a problem. And it is also very convenient when those excuses support a political agenda.
Christopher Booker, who lives in Somerset, made similar comments about the failure of the Environment Agency to dredge the rivers there. He also suggests there is a desire amongst many at the Agency to see the Levels return to the swampy wilderness that existed prior to the 17thC, when they were drained