Simon Creer: A climate for change?
After almost a month’s rainfall in a day, Simon Creer asks if our summers will ever be the same again. Staring out of the window in August should be a pleasant experience, not an apocalyptic vision of sheeting rain and flooding gutters. This year, however, has been awful. On Saturday we had 72mm of rain, which is over three quarters of expected rainfall for the entire month.
The resulting flooding was terrible and saw people washed out of their homes and motorways closed. The pictures of the new Westlink underpass in Belfast shows how much rain fell and also how apparently unprepared the city was for dealing with it.
Are these occurrences going to become a regular fixture in our annual calendar? Are we seeing the first stages of massive climate change?
Met Office forecaster Helen Chivers says: "The jet stream has been further south this summer, which brings wet weather to the UK. Also, we are seeing the effects of a la Nina event in the South Pacific which cools the water down there and can bring about heavy rain in the UK.
"There are elements there that you could see as the result of climate change but you cannot put it on one incident like the flooding over the weekend."
Professor Julian Orford, the head of Geography at Queen’s University, says: "Nobody will say if this is due to climate change, or not. The uncertainties are so much that you cannot be specific about a single incident.
"This is to do with the positioning of the jet stream and it being a little bit further south than normal. It is this that gets the low pressure which brings the rain and this is much more of a technical issue which you cannot say is to do with climate change."
The problem, he says, is that in any 100-year period you might see no changes to the climate but you may see extreme weather like we have had in the last month. He explains: "To say they are to do with climate change is not something you can do, but what you can say is that the effect is due to man's activity and building."
Professor Orford thinks the problem is that the more we build the less capacity the ground has for removing excess water. He adds: "It is vastly different from climate change but it gives us a glimpse of what may be to come. How are people going to change their behaviour with what climate change will bring? It is a glimpse of the situation that may occur in the future.”
There is a lot that can be done by governments, but Professor Orford thinks a lot needs to be done by individuals in order to protect themselves.
He says: "This is not something governments can do 100% but we do ask for good guidance. What we want to do is make people better prepared for what could happen.
“There are a number of simple things we can do on an individual basis. Things like flood proofing. There are simple plastic boards that you can buy, which slot into the doors and raise the level by about two inches. These are inexpensive things people can do individually to protect their homes."
There are things that can be done on a larger scale. Alastair Adaire, professor of planning at the University of Ulster, thinks this was a freak occurrence but things can be done to lessen the hardship.
He says: "Most road systems and planning takes into account the one in 100 years theory. This means that there will be an incident of this severity once in every 100 years. What is worrying is the frequency is becoming higher than this."
Professor Adaire is particularly concerned about what happened in the underpass. "This is a shocking event, a brand new road and this is what happens on its first trial,” he says. “I think there some monitoring concerns."
Assuming the design and construction were sound, there must have been other reasons why the drains didn't work and, with heavy rain becoming a regular fixture, faults like this have to be spotted.
Professor Adaire says: "I think the issue is with maintenance systems and monitoring of drainage. There is a cost to this and that needs to be recognised. If you have to check the drainage systems more often then it has to be paid for from the public purse, but this has to be balanced against the enormous costs of flooding. This is not just financial, but emotional, for people who have to clear out their homes."
Professor Adaire thinks that we need to be looking ahead for solutions to what could become a regular problem. He explains: "I don't think blame is the solution. We need to find answers. It comes back to cost and reaction speed to heavy rain. There's a financial equation and this is why climate change is beginning to bother people. We are seeing more of these events and therefore the cost must be rising."
BBC NI weather presenter Cecilia Daly points out that this was a result of a very wet August. She says that we have had so much rain in the last couple of weeks that it is getting harder and harder for the ground to cope with it.
Although the rain we did have over the weekend was unprecedented. She says: "Even if we hadn't had the amount of rain we have had over the last month there still would have been flooding. It is the worst August we have had and could turn out to be the wettest month of the year.
"The ground just cannot take any more water at the moment."
Fortunately for those needing to clean up the mess, she says that there is a brighter couple of days on the way.
She reveals: "We might even have some dry days by the end of the week."