Most remarkable of all is the fact that the astonishing picture the nation
is now witnessing – whole towns cut off, gigantic areas underwater, mass
evacuations, infrastructure paralyzed and grotesquely swollen rivers, from the Severn and the Thames downwards not even at their peaks yet – has all been caused by a single day’s rainfall. A month’s worth and more in an hour. It is obvious that the Government and the civil powers, from Gordon Brown down to the emergency services, are struggling to cope, not only with the sheer physical scale of the disaster itself, but with the very concept ofit. It is entirely unfamiliar. It is new. Yet it is exactly what has been forecast for the past decade and more.
No one can yet attribute the flood events of the past week, or indeed, those of June, when Yorkshire suffered what Gloucestershire and Worcestershire are suffering now – again from one single day’s rainfall – directly to global warming. All climates have a natural variability which includes exceptional occurrences.
But the catastrophic "extreme rainfall events" of the summer of 2007, on 24 June and 20 July, are entirely consistent with repeated predictions of what climate change will bring.
It is nearly 10 years since the scientists of the UK Climate Impacts Programme first gave their detailed forecast of what global warming had in store for Britain in the 21st century – and high up on the list was rainfall, increasing both in frequency and intensity.
This was thought most likely to happen in winter, with summers predicted to be hotter and dryer. But yesterday Peter Stott of the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, an author of a new scientific paper linking increases in rainfall to climate change, commented: "It is possible under climate change that there could be an increase of extreme rainfall even under general drying."
The paper by Dr Stott and other authors, reported in The Independent yesterday, detects for the first time a "human fingerprint" in rainfall increases in recent decades in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere – that is, it finds they were partly caused by global warming, itself caused by emissions of greenhouse gases.
The public as a whole appears not to have taken the extreme rainfall predictions on board, thinking of climate change in terms of hotter weather. But the science community has been fully aware of it, and has steadily reinforced the warnings.
One of the most important came from a group of experts commissioned to look at the risks by the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, under the Government’s Foresight Programme, in 2004. Their report, Future Flooding, said that unless precautions were taken, more severe floods brought about by climate change could massively increase the number of people and the amount of property at risk. Yet once again, this hardly penetrated the public consciousness.
Perhaps now it will. These vast floods were caused by a single day’s rain. When has that ever happened before? Probably never — the previous record-holder in Britain, the floods of l947, were caused by thawing snow, and rain on snow. And if this damage that could be caused by one day’s rain…
Reminds me of the lyrics to Thom Yorke’s climate change song "And It Rained All Night" —
And it rained all night and then all day
The drops were the size of your hands and face
The worms come out to see what’s up
We pull the cars up from the river