By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Dec 30, 2015 (updated)
Britain has been hit with record rainfall and flooding during the month of December, particularly in northern England and southern Scotland. This is not a freak occurrence but rather a pattern of rising winter rainfall.
The record rainfall is being caused by changing global weather patterns, in turn caused by warming temperatures. This month was the warmest December on record in Britain, just as the month and the year 2015 were the warmest on record in many parts of the world. Steady, heavy rainfall in Britain has soaked the ground and if land management and flood defences are bad, there is nowhere for water to go but downstream .
In this case, yes, Britain has very bad forest and land management practices, driven by greed and inattention to science and citizen concerns. The BBC reports here on the tidal wave of criticism of inaction or bad policy decisions by the British government in the face rising rainfall patterns. Below is an article by British environment writer George Monbiot on the specific side of the storm and flood story.
A monster winter storm now over the North Atlantic is bringing yet more rain to Britain on December 29-30 in the form of Storm Frank. This is the same storm system that brought tornadoes to Texas on December 26, killing some 40 people. It has brought the temperature at the North Pole to zero Celsius; that’s about 25C (corrected) above normal (CNN news story here, deeper analysis here). The forecast daytime high temperature at the Pole for January 2 is 2C.
Parts of the U.S. Midwest and southeast are bracing for rising flood waters from the rainstorms of the past week. The Mississippi River is expected to rise five meters above the flood stage level in the coming days. It could reach record-high flood levels, exceeding the floods in 1993 that killed 50 people and cost an estimated $15 billion in damage. That event led U.S. authorities to begin to return part of the river’s flood plain to its natural state.
Some 18 million people are living in areas threatened with flooding, from Kansas to Florida. Fourteen people have died from the flooding in the state of Missouri alone.
Published in this report on A Socialist In Canada are the following:
- A timeline of the flooding in Britain in December 2015.
- A commentary on the flooding published by writer and author George Monbiot.
- Background to the present flooding crisis in Britain, including past articles by Roger Annis.
1. Timeline of storms hitting northern England and Scotland in December 2015
- Storm Desmond, first week of December. Rainfall in this storm broke all previous UK records, with the Met [weather] Office saying Honister in Cumbria received 341.4mm (13.4in) of rain in the 24 hours between 4 and 5 December.
- Four days after Storm Desmond, lighter rain falling on already saturated ground led to yet more flooding. And yet more light rainfall on Tuesday, Dec 22 left some parts of the county under water for a third time in a month.
- Storm Eva brought torrential rain on Dec 25 and 26.
- Storm Frank hit on December 29-30, bringing yet more flooding.
2. This flood was not only foretold – it was publicly subsidised
By George Monbiot, The Guardian, Dec 29, 2015. With photos and video.
These floods were not just predictable; they were predicted. There were clear and specific warnings that the management of land upstream of the towns now featuring in the news would lead to disaster. On 9 December one of my readers told me this. “I live in the middle of Foss drainage board land above York, where flooding would not harm a single property but water is sent down as fast as possible to York.” A few days later another reader wrote to me, warning that “upstream flood banks now protect crops, not the city of York”. On 26 December the Foss exploded into York.
It is a complaint I’ve heard repeatedly: internal drainage boards – which are public bodies but tend to be mostly controlled by landowners – often prioritise the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream. By straightening, embanking and dredging rivers where they cut through fields, the boards accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely. When heavy rain falls, some land must flood. We have a choice: fields or cities. And all over Britain, we have chosen badly.
For several years campaigners in Hebden Bridge have been begging the government to stop the drainage and burning of the grouse moors upstream. Eighteen months ago I visited the town, where activists told me that thanks to the damage inflicted on the bogs and deep vegetation of the moors, which reduces their capacity to hold water, it was only a matter of time before Hebden Bridge was wrecked again by flash floods. Their warnings were not just ignored, but – if such a thing is possible – actively disregarded.
In 2002 Walshaw Moor, a 6,500-acre grouse shooting estate upstream of Hebden Bridge, was bought by the retail tycoon Richard Bannister. Satellite images before and after show a transformation of the land: a great intensification of burning and draining. These activities raise the number of grouse, which in turns raises the amount (running into thousands per person per day) people will pay to shoot them.
In 2011, the government body Natural England launched a prosecution of the estate, citing “illegal works” on the moor. The estate was charged with 45 offences, 30 of which involved building allegedly unauthorised drainage channels. It denied all criminal activity. In 2012, as Mark Avery documents in his book Inglorious, something very odd happened. After £1m had been spent on the case it was suddenly dropped. Instead, Natural England struck an agreement with the estate under which the owner of Walshaw Moor would be given £2.5m of public money, in the form of a special package of enhanced farm subsidies, to carry on more or less as before, without reversing what were alleged to have been illegal works.
Avery’s freedom of information requests seeking to discover why this astonishing reversal took place have been repeatedly blocked, so there is no definitive explanation. But we know that the minister responsible at the time, Richard Benyon, is himself a grouse moor owner, and was lobbied over this period by the Moorland Association, which represents other grouse moor owners. We have no way of knowing whether these facts are related, and I cannot make a direct connection between the management of Walshaw Moor and the present flooding of Hebden Bridge. But there’s little doubt that the management of grouse moors tends to increase the risk of flooding.
Though grouse moors stretch the definition of agricultural land to breaking point, they remain eligible for public money in the form of farm subsidies. In 2014 as essential public services were hacked back, the government quietly increased the money to which they are entitled by 84%. Maximising the number of grouse means treating the moors as if they were giant chicken runs, draining the land, eradicating predators and competitors and burning the heather to stimulate the young shoots on which grouse feed. If the proles downstream are flooded out of their homes, really, who cares?
Similar irrationalities abound. Farm subsidies everywhere are conditional on the land being in “agricultural condition”. This does not mean any actual farming has to take place there – only that it looks like farmland. Any land covered by “permanent ineligible features” is disqualified. What does this mean? Wildlife habitat. If farmers don’t keep the hills bare, they don’t get their money. Scrub, regenerating woodland, forested gullies, ponds and other features that harbour wildlife and hold back water must be cleared. European rules insist that we pay farmers to help flood our homes.
The British government wants to deregulate dredging and channel clearance, to allow farmers to shift water off their land more quickly. It was instrumental in destroying the proposed European soil framework directive, which would have reduced flooding by preventing the erosion and compaction of the soil.
There are signs that this antediluvian thinking is beginning to shift. Rory Stewart, the minister in charge of floods, once mocked the organisations seeking to hold back water on farmland rather than letting it rush into homes. But this week he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that we need more trees in the hills, and should let our rivers meander once more. It was so welcome and surprising that it felt like a parting of the waters.
Building higher walls will not, by itself, protect our towns. We need flood prevention as well as flood defence. This means woodland and functioning bogs on the hills. It means dead wood and gravel banks and other such obstructions in the upper reaches of the streams (beavers will do such work for nothing). It means pulling down embankments to reconnect rivers to their floodplains, flooding fields instead of towns. It means allowing rivers to meander and braid. It means creating buffer zones around their banks: places where trees, shrubs, reeds and long grass are allowed to grow, providing what engineers call hydraulic roughness. It means the opposite of the orgy of self-destruction that decades of government and European policy have encouraged: grazing, mowing, burning, draining, canalisation and dredging.
Natural flood management of this kind does not guarantee that urban floods will never happen. But its absence exacerbates them. Yes, Britain has been hit by massive storms and record rainfall. But it has also been hit by incompetence, ignorance and concessions to favoured interests. This, at least, we can change.
You can also find the above article on the website of George Monbiot, here.
3. More background:
The growing science linking global warming to extreme climate events, on RobertsScribbler, Dec 31, 2015
Cut now, pay later: the floods show what happens when you strip back the state, by Owen Jones, The Guardian, Dec 29, 2015
From ‘biblical’ floods to deadly heat, 2015 was a year of weather worsts, by Raveena Aulakh, environment reporter, Toronto Star, Dec 30, 2015
A year of extreme weather, and no reprieve in sight, by Raveena Aulakh, environment reporter, Toronto Star, Dec 30, 2015
Freak storm in North Atlantic to lash UK, pushes temperatures 50F degrees above normal at North Pole, Washington Post, Dec 29, 2015 (with update)
‘The vigorous low pressure system that helped spawn devastating tornadoes in the Dallas area on December 26 is forecast to explode into a monstrous storm over Iceland by Wednesday.’
And on the same subject: Warm Arctic storm to hurl hurricane force winds at UK and Iceland, push temps to 36-72+ degrees (F) above normal at North Pole, Robert’s Scribbler, Dec 29, 2015
Britain hammered by ocean surges and ‘most exceptional rainfall in 248 years’, by Roger Annis, Feb 14, 2014
An ‘inconvenient’ ice storm hits Canada and northern U.S. amidst the whirlwind of climate science denial, by Roger Annis, Dec 30, 2013