UK suffers the stormiest December since 1969

Storms blast through the UK with renewed vigour, causing flooding and transport problems across the country

Source: Flickr:[Beta]

Source: Flickr/[Beta]

By Sophie Yeo

The UK has survived the stormiest December in 44 years, the Met Office said today, as the wind and the rain push with gusto through to January.

December 2013 also takes home the title of one of the windiest months altogether since January 1993. In Scotland, it was the wettest month since records began in 1910.

In October, St Jude’s storm caused mayhem to transport and infrastructure as it swept through the UK and north western Europe, while a storm at the beginning of December caused the London Thames Barrier to shut to prevent flooding to the nation’s capital.

Today, the storms have returned in force after a Christmas lull. According to the Environment Agency, storm surges and high tides and combined to cause flooding in areas including Cornwall and Devon.

In Dublin, the River Liffey has burst its banks, while communities along the rivers Severn, Dee and Stour have also been warned of a possibility of flooding.

Earlier today, the Agency issued 21 severe flood warnings, which have now dropped down to eight. In total, there are more than 400 lower level flood alerts in place across the UK.

Flood warnings issued today by the Environment Agency

Flood warnings issued today by the Environment Agency

Why so stormy?

Storms can be generally expected in the winter, write the Met Office on their website, but even by usual standards the past few weeks have been exceptional.

“It’s partly due to particularly warm and cold air being squeezed together in the mid-latitudes, where the UK sits,” they explain. “This could be due to nothing more than the natural variability which governs Atlantic weather.”

The risk of storms has also been increased this year by what is called the ‘quasi-biennial oscillation’ – a cycle which sees a fast moving band of narrow winds flip from east to west roughly every 14 months. It is currently in the westerly phase, which means a chance of stronger storms.

Writing in the Guardian, Dr Chris Huntingford, a climate modeller at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, says advanced Met Office climate models could soon offer “estimates for how the probabilities of major storm events happening might change over the coming decades.”

“That information will be critical for adaptation planning, including how to make our infrastructure more robust,” he adds.

Climate change

The influence of climate change on storminess remains uncertain and no single extreme weather event can be attributed to global warming.

In 2005, scientists found that there had been a significant increase in the number of severe storms over the UK as a whole since the 1950s, although an equally stormy period to the 1990s was experienced in the 1920s. There is so far little evidence to suggest that this increase is related to manmade climate change.

What is more certain is that the ocean surrounding the UK coast will continue to rise, which a report from the government’s environment department says will combine with storms to produce extreme changes in water levels, and therefore more flooding when the heavy winds hit.

The Met Office continues to research the connection between climate change and storminess, and is working with global insurance company AXA to identify how climate change could effect the frequency, severity and location of extreme events.

The latest storm has arrived as it was revealed that hundreds of flooding-related jobs at the Environment Agency are at risk as the organisation aims to slash its numbers.

That’s likely to make future efforts to address flooding harder, Paul Leinster, the EA’s chief executive, told environmental magazine the Ends Report.

“All of our work on mapping and modelling and new developments in things like flood warning will also have to be resized. And we’re looking at a proportionate reduction in the number of people in flood risk management.”

Read more on: Nature |