Floods and tidal surges: part of life in the British Isles

The worst winter storms to hit the UK for 20 years have been nothing if not comprehensive.


6 January 2014: Waves pound the sea wall by the lighthouse in Porthcawl, South Wales. Photo: Rex.

The day after the tidal surge subsided, on 6 December, I drove out to Jaywick, on the Essex coast. This plotland community was established near Clacton-on-Sea in the 1930s as a holiday resort for Londoners. It is now said to be the most deprived place in England. The sea is its most treasured amenity, but occasionally it becomes a threat – 37 people drowned in Jaywick on the night of 31 January 1953, when the North Sea broke though coastal defences along the east coast, and many of its residents were evacuated on 5 December 2013, when the highest “tidal surge” in 60 years was predicted.

I met a woman on the beach who told me that she had slept rough with her dog in Clacton-on-Sea because the shelter was full. Her son had stayed in Jaywick. Other people had walked back in the middle of the night. Two lads sharing an early-morning spliff on the seafront showed me how high the water had come.

Improved flood defences and warning systems ensured there was no repeat of the catastrophe of 1953: there was no loss of life on the east coast and less damage to property than had been feared. Yet not everywhere escaped unscathed: houses from Hull to Essex were flooded, and the Lincolnshire town of Boston found itself knee-deep in water when a tidal inlet called the Haven burst its banks. The chalk mark drawn on the back wall of St Botolph’s Church, or “the Stump”, as it is known, thanks to the tall tower that rises above the flat fenland landscape, suggests that the water was a metre higher than it had been in 1953.

Boston has always been oriented towards Europe, and beyond: it is the place from which religious dissidents first attempted to escape England for a new life of religious freedom, and today it claims a higher proportion of immigrants than any other town in the country. When I arrived several days after the flood and walked along Irby Street, which runs beside – and beneath – the Haven, there were cars with Czech number plates parked among the damp carpets and rotting furniture piled on the pavements. One woman told me she had been in Prague when the water flowed through her house, leaving an ankle-deep tidemark on the walls. The water took its habitually capricious course: it bypassed some houses entirely, but struck others with such force that it blew in their windows and threw cookers around as if they were made of polystyrene.

The residents of Boston had been told to expect an even higher tide on New Year’s Day, but when the storms resumed, they struck the other coast and travelled in the opposite direction, from Cornwall to Scotland: the worst winter storms to hit the UK, for 20 years have been nothing if not comprehensive.

Met Office statistics confirm the anecdotal evidence: it was the stormiest December in records dating back to 1969, and one of the windiest months in Britain since January 1993. In Scotland, it was the wettest month since records began in 1910. No one knows if the storms are caused by climate change or not: the Met Office will say only that it expects to see extreme weather events more frequently as the planet warms. More immediate causes have also been cited, from the “quasi-biennial oscillation”, a cycle of fast-moving winds above the Equator, to the effects of the US’s arctic freeze.

The political arguments over the causes of the storms have begun: the government says more than a million homes have been protected since the start of December, but critics say that spending on flood defences is being cut – in real terms it will fall from £646m in 2010-2011 to £546m in 2015-2016. The Prime Minister acknowledged the political significance of flooded homes when he visited the Kent town of Yalding on 27 December.

One of the residents of the Little Venice Country Park and Marina, which stands on the edge of town, told me that they were used to four or five feet of water, but they were not prepared for the ten-foot wave that swept through the park. “It was the scariest thing I have ever seen,” he said. When I visited Little Venice on 7 January, the Environment Agency was considering evacuating the park for a third time, while in Westminster, the debate about the national response to the storms was getting under way: Maria Eagle dismissed the Prime Minister’s visit to Yalding as a “stunt” but the residents of Little Venice were not inclined to join in the recriminations. They did not even blame the Environment Agency for opening the Leigh Barrier upstream and releasing the tidal wave that set their homes adrift. “It was a case of ‘had to’,” one said. “It’s the same all over the country: it’s just exceptional weather.”

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.