Human influence on climate in the 2014 southern England winter floods and their impacts

Abstract

A succession of storms reaching southern England in the winter of 2013/2014 caused severe floods and £451 million insured losses. In a large ensemble of climate model simulations, we find that, as well as increasing the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold, anthropogenic warming caused a small but significant increase in the number of January days with westerly flow, both of which increased extreme precipitation. Hydrological modelling indicates this increased extreme 30-day-average Thames river flows, and slightly increased daily peak flows, consistent with the understanding of the catchment’s sensitivity to longer-duration precipitation and changes in the role of snowmelt. Consequently, flood risk mapping shows a small increase in properties in the Thames catchment potentially at risk of riverine flooding, with a substantial range of uncertainty, demonstrating the importance of explicit modelling of impacts and relatively subtle changes in weather-related risks when quantifying present-day effects of human influence on climate.

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Figure 1: Observed and modelled extreme precipitation and associated atmospheric pressure.
Figure 2: Observed and modelled jet-stream anomalies.
Figure 3: Precipitation observations 1768–2014 at the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford.
Figure 4: Links between rainfall and atmospheric circulation anomalies.
Figure 5: Changing probabilities of extremes.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank the climateprediction.net participants whose generous donation of their spare computer processing power has enabled the large model ensembles to be created. Thanks to T. Palmer for suggesting Fig. 2, to S. Kew for assistance with the kernel density estimates, and to M. Tanguy and V. Keller for producing the CEH-GEAR data for 2013/2014 ahead of schedule. We further thank JBA Risk Management Limited for permission to use data derived from their GB Comprehensive Flood Map, based on Astrium digital terrain data. Property locations were derived from AddressPoint data, used with kind permission of Ordnance Survey. N.S., N.R.M., G.J.v.O., R.V., P.Y., A.W., P.A.S. and M.R.A. were supported by the EUCLEIA project funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no. 607085. N.S. received additional support from the Swiss National Science Foundation. N.R.M., F.E.L.O., S.N.S., W.J.I., A.B., J.M. and D.W. also received support from the NERC HYDRA Changing Water Cycle project. A.L.K., S.M.C. and C.H. were supported by the CEH/NERC National Capability fund. P.A.S., W.J.I. and R.G.J. were also supported by the UK Joint Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) MOHC Climate Programme (GA01101).

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N.S., A.L.K., R.L., G.J.v.O., R.V., P.Y., P.A.S. and M.R.A. designed the study, N.S., A.L.K., R.L., N.R.M., A.B., J.M., J.S. set up and performed model experiments, N.S., A.L.K., R.L., N.R.M., G.J.v.O., F.E.L.O., S.N.S., R.V., P.Y., K.H., C.H., T.L. and J.S. provided analyses and all authors wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Nathalie Schaller or Neil R. Massey.

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Schaller, N., Kay, A., Lamb, R. et al. Human influence on climate in the 2014 southern England winter floods and their impacts. Nature Clim Change 6, 627–634 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2927

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