Potential influences on the United Kingdom's floods of winter 2013/14


During the winter of 2013/14, much of the UK experienced repeated intense rainfall events and flooding. This had a considerable impact on property and transport infrastructure. A key question is whether the burning of fossil fuels is changing the frequency of extremes, and if so to what extent. We assess the scale of the winter flooding before reviewing a broad range of Earth system drivers affecting UK rainfall. Some drivers can be potentially disregarded for these specific storms whereas others are likely to have increased their risk of occurrence. We discuss the requirements of hydrological models to transform rainfall into river flows and flooding. To determine any general changing flood risk, we argue that accurate modelling needs to capture evolving understanding of UK rainfall interactions with a broad set of factors. This includes changes to multiscale atmospheric, oceanic, solar and sea-ice features, and land-use and demographics. Ensembles of such model simulations may be needed to build probability distributions of extremes for both pre-industrial and contemporary concentration levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

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Figure 1: UK rainfall.
Figure 2: River flows at Kingston on the River Thames, UK, and associated rainfall and groundwater levels.
Figure 3: Monthly river flows for major UK rivers for December 2013.
Figure 4: Monthly river flows for major UK rivers for January 2014.
Figure 5: Monthly river flows for major UK rivers for February 2014.
Figure 6: Schematic of potential flood drivers.


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C.H., T.M., J.H., A.L.K., C.P., N.S.R., S.P., H.C.W., V.A.B., M.B. and A.J. at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology were supported by the NERC National Capability fund. A.A.S., E.J.K., J.A.L., M.R., P.A.S., T.L. and J.S. at the Met Office were supported by the Joint UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme (GA01101). River-flow data were obtained from the UK National River Flow Archive. J.A.S. was funded by NERC grant NE/J019585/1. C.H. was funded by the NERC HYDRA project. River-flow and groundwater-level data are provided by the Environment Agency (EA), Natural Resources Wales—Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and, for Northern Ireland, the Rivers Agency and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

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C.H. conceived and designed the paper. T.M., J.H. and S.P. provided hydrological data and their interpretation. T.L. provided rainfall data. Latest research understanding was provided by A.A.S., E.J.K., J.S. and M.R. on high-resolution atmospheric modelling and processes; by A.L.K., C.P., V.A.B. and N.S.R. on flood modelling and processes; by M.L. and A.A.S. on solar–climate interactions; by J.A.L. on issues of sea-level rise and coastal flooding; by J.A.S. on sea-ice–climate interactions; by P.A.S. on rainfall trend detection and attribution; and by F.E.L.O., N.M. and M.R.A. on the fractional attributable risk statistic and large ensemble modelling. C.H., H.C.W., M.B., N.S. and A.J. discussed the overall aims of the paper. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Chris Huntingford.

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Huntingford, C., Marsh, T., Scaife, A. et al. Potential influences on the United Kingdom's floods of winter 2013/14. Nature Clim Change 4, 769–777 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2314

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