Britain hammered by ocean surges and 'most exceptional rainfall in 248 years'

Rail line washed out at Dawlish, England

England is experiencing the worst flooding since the catastrophic flood of 1953. December and January saw the heaviest rainfall since record keeping began in 1910. More heavy rains and storms are forecast in the weeks to come.

The hardest hit areas are in the southwest and sections of the Thames River Valley. The water levels in low-lying Somerset county are expected to take months to recede.

Rail service has been disrupted. A section of the rail line connecting Devon and Cornwall counties in the southwest, including the city of Plymouth, to the rest of the country has been washed away. It will be at least six weeks before the line is restored. Service to those counties and to Somerset, via Bristol further north, is also halted. Replacement bus service has been introduced.

Rail service west of London along the Thames Valley is slowed or halted.

The UK is falling behind in work needed to protect its railways from floods. The Conservative Party government is cutting funding for general flood defenses and its system of local emergency response have been degraded over the years as local governments have seen their funding and powers diminished.

A background article in The Guardian reports, “The Royal Institute of British Architects estimates that 1.5% of the UK is at risk from direct flooding from the sea and about 7% of the country is likely to flood at least once a century from rivers. It says about 1.7m homes and 130,000 commercial properties are at risk from river or coastal flooding in England alone, and the effects of flooding and managing flood risk cost the country about £2.2bn a year, compared with the less than £1bn spent on flood protection and management.

Insurance industry spokespeople estimate the cost to date of the current flood damage exceeds £1 billion (US $1.66 billion).

The flooding is coming from all sources--tidal flooding from the ocean and tidal rivers; fluvial flooding from rivers bursting their banks or overflowing; groundwater flooding from saturation of the earth; and flash flooding by sudden, heavy rainfall.

One of Britain’s leading businessmen writes in The Guardian that London itself faces a threat of catastrophic flooding in the years to come should the Thames Barrier be overwhelmed. Sir Ian Cheshire led a government taskforce last year on the role of ecosystems. He says the UK has to concentrate on adaptation to climate change and that those still in denial about global warming should wake up and recognize, "these events are connected to the fact that climate is fundamentally changing".

Construction of the Thames Barrier began in 1974 and was completed ten years later. The last time the streets of London flooded was in 1928. was constructed in the 1960s.

The ocean surrounding Britain has risen by about 12cm in the past 100 years. A further 11-16cm rise is projected by 2030.

A research paper by the Met Office (the UK's National Weather Service) examines the links between the 2013-14 flooding and anthropogenic climate change. It writes in a summary:

The severe weather in the UK coincided with exceptionally cold weather in Canada and the USA. These extreme weather events on both sides of the Atlantic were linked to a persistent pattern of perturbations to the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean and North America.

The major changes in the Pacific jet stream were driven by a persistent pattern of enhanced rainfall over Indonesia and the tropical West Pacific associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region. The North Atlantic jet stream has also been unusually strong; this can be linked to exceptional wind patterns in the stratosphere with a very intense polar vortex.

As yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding. This is in part due to the highly variable nature of UK weather and climate.

Nevertheless, recent studies have suggested an increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms that take a more southerly track, typical of this winter's extreme weather. There is also an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming world.

On Feb 9, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, said for the first time that climate change almost certainly lies behind this winter's torrential rains and violent storms. The forecaster points out the country has seen the "most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years".

Leaders of Britain’s governing Conservative Party routinely deny that human activity is causing global warming. While Prime Minister David Cameron has given some acknowledgement to climate science, Guardian Environment Blog writer David Atkins explains that Cameron has "surrounded himself with people who have completely undermined efforts to tackle global warming and prepare the nation for its consequences." Britain's environment minister, the hapless Owen Paterson is a professed climate sceptic.

Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s right-wing UK Independence Party, has called the latest flood events “just the weather”.

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