Climate Feedback

Flash floods – a sign of what’s in store?

Olive Heffernan

Much like the rest of Britain, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s ever going to stop raining. And despite feeling slightly miffed at an appalling excuse for a summer, I realise I’m lucky to be based in slightly soggy London, given that large areas of the country are currently besieged by some of the worst flooding in recent British history.

Calling it a ‘21st century catastrophe’, Michael McCarthy at the Independent writes that “Britain is suffering from a wholly new type of civil emergency: a disaster caused by 21st-century weather,” which has left more than a third of a million people without drinking water, nearly 50,000 people without power, thousands more people homeless and caused more than £2bn worth of damage so far.

Britain is not alone in experiencing extremely heavy rainfall. As reported on MSNBC, “parts of China had the heaviest rainfall since records began, killing more than 700 so far this year. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by flash floods in southern Pakistan.”

While these single events cannot be attributed to climate change, many are questioning if the flash flooding is a sign of what is in store for the future. And scientists have some of the answers.

In a paper coming out in Nature this Thursday, Francis Zwiers of the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis in Toronto and colleagues present the first evidence that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions have altered rainfall patterns in the 20th Century. In the region between 40 and 70 degrees North, covering northern Europe, Russia and parts of North America, rainfall increased by 62 millimetres per century between 1925 and 1999. Zwiers and colleagues say that 50-85% of this increase can be attributed to human activity. For further discussion and comments on the paper, there’s a news story by my colleague Daniel Cressy on News@Nature. And it’s also been picked up by the BBC.

And a recent paper published in Science in June suggests that global warming may result in even more rainfall worldwide than is currently evident in climate model simulations. Frank J. Wentz of Remote Sensing Systems in Santa Rosa, California and co-workers compared global satellite data from 1987 to 2006 and found that rainfall increased at the same rate as atmospheric water vapour per degree Celsius of surface warming. Climate models had projected a dampened response of rainfall to global warming owing to a decrease in surface winds, but Wentz and colleagues found that surface winds have in fact become stronger, leading to heavier rainfall (more on this in Nature Reports Climate Change soon).

Coming back to Britain… the situation is likely to worsen over the next 24 hours. Eight severe warnings have been issued covering the rivers Thames, Severn and Ouse, in particular for towns such as Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Oxford, Abingdon, Reading and Bedford. Fifty other flood warnings are in place across England and Wales.

To see the areas generally most at risk of flooding in England and Wales, visit the Environment Agency’s flood map online, where you view flood risk by postcode. For an up to date interactive on the current situation, the Guardian has quite a snazzy interactive highlighting areas most at risk.

Olive Heffernan

News Editor

Nature Reports Climate Change


  1. Report this comment

    Tarun K Juyal said:

    I am a regular reader of your article. And I am very impress with your blog upon Global Warming. Now I am also write a blog upon Global Warming. This blog is collection of news & reviews like the study found that global warming since 1985 has been caused neither by an increase in solar radiation nor by a decrease in the flux of galactic cosmic rays. Some researchers had also suggested that the latter might influence global warming because the rays trigger cloud formation.

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    aaron said:

    Is it time yet to change the blog name to “Weather Feedback”?

  3. Report this comment

    Olive Heffernan said:

    Well, the point of this post wasn’t to discuss the weather but rather to point out the most up-to-date science linking rainfall to climate change….which is a topical issue, given the amount of rainfall we’ve been experiencing. So, personally I don’t think that necessitates changing the name of our blog, no…but thanks for the suggestion!

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