The storm factory: climate change and the winter floods

In Somerset, the novelty of canoes has long since worn off.

A man paddles his canoe down the flooded main A361 road
A man paddles his canoe down the flooded main A361 road as it enters the village of East Lyng, 13 February 2014. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

I reached Burrow Mump two hours after the soldiers. Major Al Robinson and Sergeant Leigh Robinson of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment were the first representatives of the military sent to the Somerset Levels, and, having climbed the granite-topped outcrop that stands above the village of Burrowbridge and surveyed the expanse of water below on the morning of 30 January, they came to the conclusion that there was nothing they could do to help.

Burrow Mump, like its better-known counterpart Glastonbury Tor, is a rare high spot in the low-lying basins of moorland known as the Somerset Levels: Burrow Mump stands in the western half, between the Quantock and Polden Hills, and Glastonbury Tor overlooks its eastern reaches, which are known to those of a certain disposition as “the Vale of Avalon”. Neither would seem particularly imposing anywhere – it takes no longer to scramble up the muddy slopes of Burrow Mump than it does to climb Primrose Hill in north London – but in the flat, sparsely inhabited lands of the Levels, they have acquired a quasi-mystical significance: both are topped by ruined chapels, and both draw visits from sight­seers and pilgrims of all kinds, including an increasing numbers of tourists drawn to the Levels by reports of an inundation routinely described as biblical in scale.

The sheet of water that lapped at the edge of the car park and rose halfway up the trunks of trees on the lower slopes of Burrow Mump was broken here and there by trees and gateposts – the dots and dashes of a visual Morse code indicating the outlines of the fields below. To the east, it was enclosed by the Polden Hills and to the west it stretched far beyond Burrowbridge. The only dry land to the south was the dark green verges of the embankment that hems in the conjoined waters of the Rivers Parrett and Tone, carrying them towards the town: as most of the moors lie below sea level, the waterways have been built higher than the surrounding land to allow them to drain.

The diversion of the Tone was the first significant step in the unending task of draining the Levels. It used to run further west, between the village of East Lyng and the “island” of Athelney, to which King Alfred retreated before defeating the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878, but in the 14th century it was diverted into a man-made channel that joins the Parrett just north of Burrowbridge.

When I had walked across the bridge in the middle of the village half an hour earlier, the water was barely passing beneath the arches, and an improvised wall of sandbags and tarpaulin built along the east bank was protecting the houses that are separated from the river by only a narrow road. One of the homeowners, who was leaning on the gate, said that his house was always damp but didn’t often flood: paradoxically, the houses closest to the river are less vulnerable than most. The situation on the west side of the village, where the flood water had gathered, was worse: two of the three roads that diverged from the road across the bridge were closed and there were emergency crews working in the yard of a house in an attempt to save it from the encroaching lake.

The Parrett, which rises in Dorset, drains an area of 660 square miles, or about half of Somerset’s land area, and last month, according to the Environment Agency, it received the highest January rainfall on record – twice the normal average for this time of year. Yet the locals believed there was a simple solution to the crisis, as the banner slung across the bridge made plain: “Stop the Flooding – Dredge the Rivers!” They claim the Parrett is operating at less than full capacity because the Environment Agency has allowed it to silt up; they say it used to be dredged regularly and was wider and deeper, so that it flowed more freely even when swelled by winter rains.

The current orthodoxy maintains that “canalising” rivers and encouraging them to flow faster and straighter, as we did in the postwar years, only encourages more flooding downstream; it is considered more effective to trap water in the hills and allow rivers to braid and meander in a more natural way, but the people here do not agree. They acknowledge that the Levels have always flooded. In the winter of 1872-73, 107 square miles of land lay under water for six months, and there have been other occasions in living memory when the rivers have burst their banks. Dredging would not prevent flooding altogether, they say, but it would help: the water would not come up so high or stay up so long.

One local farmer, Julian Temperley, said that the Parrett in Bridgwater was “ten feet below its banks, while five miles upstream it was overflowing”. Temperley was particularly concerned about his 98-year-old father, who lives in Thorney House, a Georgian mansion in the village of Thorney, eight miles upstream from Burrowbridge and a mile from its celebrated neighbour Muchelney. The Anglo-Saxon suffix “ey” means “island”, and many of the villages on the Levels were built on the high ground that remained dry all year round. For the past six weeks, Muchelney has been an island again, but its houses have not flooded. Thorney’s have.

When I visited Thorney in early January, a week after the waters rose for the first time, the high street had become a lagoon and the villagers had resorted to getting about by canoe. I met two of them at the curve in the road where the water began. The kerb had become an impromptu pontoon. One of them paddled me down the high street, past the empty, flooded houses that were mirrored in the stream. The water was dark and cold, thickened with grass and filled with apples – the Parrett had swept through an orchard when it burst its banks. There were no lights on, but the steady hum of pumps confirmed that people had not abandoned their homes.

The pumps were a temporary measure: the householders were trying to keep the water levels down until the officials of the Environment Agency turned on its much larger pumps. Residents of the Levels like to remind visitors that many parts of London, including the “Island of Thorns” that became Westminster, would have flooded many times this winter if it wasn’t for the Thames Barrier, which has been closed 28 times. But even the title of the Environment Agency’s chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury, strengthens the perception that it is composed of urban sophisticates with a fondness for expensive Land Rovers and no sense of the realities of rural life. They also point to a conflict in the Environment Agency’s role – does it regard rivers as waterways, or habitats? Is it helping wildlife, or people? When I walked in to the King Alfred pub, which overlooks the swollen Parrett in Burrowbridge, the drinkers gathered at the bar were complaining that the EA had found £31m for a nature reserve on the coast but couldn’t find £5m to drain the river. The same complaint has been heard in pubs and houses throughout Somerset in the past six weeks.

The situation on the Levels has become so extreme that extra EA staff have been brought in from other parts of the country. They do not seem to attract the same resentment as the management. I was walking along the edge of the Parrett with a farmer one afternoon when we met an EA worker who attempted to pre-empt the anticipated abuse by saying he lived near Alton Towers, as if no one could pick a fight with someone who claimed a tangential connection with a funfair. Further downstream, another man from the Midlands was stationed by one of the many pumps that are draining water from the moors. He said he was there only to stop people stealing diesel, and offered a conciliatory assessment of the river flowing past in the dusk. “That’s just a big drain,” he said, gesturing at the Parrett.

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The risk of flooding from the rivers is compounded by the threat from the sea: 2,000 people were said to have drowned in the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, when the waters reached the foot of Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles inland. On 26 November 1703, the sea defences were breached in West Huntspill, near Burnham-on-Sea, close to where the Parrett enters the Bristol Channel: “… there was Four or Five small vessels drove a-shoar which remain there still, and ’tis supposed cannot be got off,” said one of the eyewitness reports that Daniel Defoe collected in The Storm, his brilliant account of the events of that night; “and in the same Parish, the Tide broke in Breast high; but all the People escap’d only one Woman, who was drowned.”

At West Huntspill the sea defences held firm this winter but in other parts of the country they were severely tested. The storm surge that travelled down the east coast of England on the night of 5-6 December generated the highest tide since the North Sea flood of 31 January 1953, in which 307 people drowned. Early-warning systems and improved defences prevented a repeat of the catastrophe, but there was still extensive damage: sections of Norfolk’s crumbling cliffs collapsed and thousands of homes were flooded. Boston and Hull were particularly badly affected.

That storm was the first of several that have pounded the coastline and, in some cases, reshaped it: natural features such as the Pom Pom Rock, a stack off Portland Bill, have been destroyed, and man-made structures such as the promenade in Aberystwyth have been damaged. In early January, the waves breached coastal defences in Chiswell, a village on Portland that stands exposed to the Atlantic, and drastically altered the contours of Chesil Beach. When the storms returned this month, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line, which has carried passengers along the south coast since 1847, was severed at Dawlish in Devon, leaving Cornwall cut off from the national rail. Wave-watching suddenly became a national pastime.

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In the meantime, a month of unprecedented rainfall has caused extensive flooding inland. Over Christmas, towns and villages in the Cotswolds, Berkshire and Kent were flooded, sometimes more than once. When I went to Yalding, near Maidstone, in early January, the people were beginning to recover from a catastrophic flood that struck the village on Christmas Day. This past week it flooded again. There has been flooding in Dorset, Essex and Lambourn Valley. Even Hertfordshire, which has been the driest county this winter, has been affected. The EA estimates that more than 5,000 properties have flooded since December and its defences have protected a further 1.3 million properties. People died, including a seven-year-old boy, apparently overcome by fumes from a pump draining flood water from his house in Chertsey, Surrey – one of many places where the Thames has burst its banks.

On Monday 10 February the EA issued 16 severe flood warnings on the River Thames. Yet the problems had begun much earlier.

One day in early January, I caught the train to Cookham in Berkshire and walked into the village that the artist Stanley Spencer depicted as a kind of Thameside Jerusalem. I was told that the causeway across the flooded moor was the only way in, but I decided to test the claim that the roads were impassable and walked out of town on the A4094. Inevitably, it was raining, and the road was deserted: the only car in sight was one that had been abandoned at the point where the flood water began.

The White Brook had burst its banks and spread out across Widbrook Common in a wide lake: its further reaches were very still but the knee-deep water was flowing fast across a stretch of the road, 100 metres wide, which had become a kind of weir. Halfway across, I met a teenage boy cycling home from school: he was soaked to the waist, his schoolbag a dripping sack, and his back wheel kept slipping sideways in the current yet he kept going. The British have always had a defiant attitude towards our unpredictable weather, and some of us, at least, are still determined to confront it.

Yet accommodations will have to be made, because we are witnessing record-breaking weather. Last month the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University, which began monitoring daily weather in 1767, recorded a total rainfall that was three times the average for January – it recorded 146.9 millimetres of rain, beating the previous record of 138.7 millimetres set in 1852. This was also the wettest winter month on record, beating December 1914, when 143.3 millimetres fell. The south and the Midlands suffered their wettest January since Met Office records began in 1910.

The immediate causes of the turbulent winter are hard to establish, but the Met Office’s chief scientist says that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”. Speaking at the launch of a report on the storms, Dame Julia Slingo said: “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. Only 12 were issued in 2012. The Met Office report links the extreme conditions in Europe and North America this winter to “perturbations” in the North Atlantic and Pacific jet streams, caused in part by changing weather patterns in south-east Asia. Recently, meteorologists have said there is a “storm factory” over the Atlantic, caused by cold polar air meeting warm tropical air, and they are considering whether the melting of the Arctic ice cap has made the jet stream track further south, channelling more storms across the UK.

The Met Office report also says the sea level along the English Channel has risen by about 12 centimetres in the past hundred years, and that a rise of between 11 centimetres and 16 centimetres “is likely by 2030”, given “the warming we are already committed to”. Most experts acknowledge that we will not be able to defend areas such as the Levels indefinitely: more resources will be expended on defending low-lying cities such as Hull, but in other places a policy of managed retreat is already being put into practice. Medmerry in West Sussex is one example: the Environment Agency has cut a gap in the sea wall and allowed farmland to revert to salt marsh, where the winter floods wasted their destructive force.

Yet there are costs to choosing such “soft defences” over sea walls and other solid structures that brace the UK’s 17,381 kilometres of coastline. According to the National Farmers Union, 58 per cent of England’s most productive farmland lies within a floodplain, so surrendering land to water presents a threat to food production. Lord Smith has said the Environment Agency has to make a choice between protecting “front rooms or farmland” and the Commons select committee on the environment has warned that we may have strayed too far in one direction: as most of the spending on flood defences is allocated to urban areas, a high proportion of the most valuable agricultural land is at risk. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also estimates that 35,000 hectares of high-quality horticultural and arable land will be flooded at least once every three years by the 2020s.

On the Somerset Levels, the novelty of paddling around in canoes has long since worn off, and the long process of cleaning up has not even begun. The government says it is pumping off 2.9 million tonnes of water a day, but in some places the situation is getting worse. In the first week of February, heavy rainfall hit the Levels again and the emergency services finally found a use for the soldiers who had surveyed the drowned landscape from Burrow Mump. On the night of 6 February water levels rose in the village of Moorland, two miles north of Burrowbridge on the west bank of the Parrett, and the marines of 40 Commando were sent in to evacuate the residents.

David Cameron arrived on the Somerset Levels the next day – no doubt he appreciated the photographs of the marines at work and the muscular urgency they conveyed. He gave in to the local people’s most insistent demand, saying that dredging would begin as soon as possible, and reinforcing the view that the remote, incompetent bureaucrats of the Environment Agency were to blame for the crisis on the Levels. The political name-calling had begun, as the storm factory over the North Atlantic prepared to send another bout of the winter’s unprecedented weather our way.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman