Up to 60,000 homes without power, 40 schools closed, two people dead: this is just a glimpse of what Storm Desmond has left in its wake after a weekend of record rainfall and extreme winds battered the north east of England, as well as parts of Northern Ireland, north Wales, and southern Scotland.
In Lancaster, the army has been deployed to help with the ongoing rescue operation, and David Cameron has called a COBRA meeting as almost 50 flood warnings remain in place across the region.
While this weekend's weather was extreme in the utmost—Cumbria, the county worst hit, saw more than a month's rainfall in one night—it is by no means an anomaly. As the UK gets used to seeing more and more devastating natural incidents, VICE spoke to Natalie Hall, an environmental expert and advisor to the government, to try and get a better picture of what this means for the future.
VICE: Hi Natalie. Firstly, are you at all surprised that this is happening?
In one word, no. It's one of those things that specialists in flooding and climate change have been warning people about for at least 15 years if not more. But it's just now that we're starting to notice it happening a lot more often, and so the media is taking more of an interest and therefore people that aren't normally affected by it are taking more of an interest, too.
The Environmental Agency has said this was an "unprecedented event," and that this amount of rainfall was not predicted. Can that be right? Is this a freak occurrence?
It definitely was a bit of a freak occurrence. How it works with flooding in general is that the government will give people a risk level of how likely certain events are to happen. For example, a certain area might have a one in 200 chance of being flooded, or it might have a much higher risk where floods happen a lot more. And I don't think this scenario was predicted to happen this year.
Do you think storms and flooding like this are the norm now, and something we should expect to happen?
Yes, definitely. Obviously, it is happening a lot more frequently now and people are starting to be aware that it's happening a lot more frequently. Really, we know enough about it—the government knows enough about it—to put things in place in case this does happen. If we don't put things in place, people die, the economy's damaged, and biodiversity's damaged. Now is the time to invest so things aren't so severe when it does happen.
Is this a direct consequence of climate change?
Yes. For me, it is as simple as that. But obviously, it's never one thing that causes something like this. I would say development is a big contributing factor. By that I mean major road schemes and big housing developments—water can no longer soak into the soil in the same way and that is one thing that increases flood risk.
What is being done and what should be done? Are there enough preventative measures to help combat the effects of storms such as these?
If you look at the bigger picture—at climate change as a whole—I would say that not enough is being done at the top level. But in relation to flood risk itself, and I'm not a flood risk specialist, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) has become more at the forefront of people's minds. When people get planning permission now, they have to take flood risk seriously. You can't get away with building houses on flood planes any more like we did ten, 15 years ago. There have to be things in place to make sure the landscape you're left with afterwards is the same level of risk as it was before. You can't make it worse now. So there are some things in place, but it's not enough.
What do you think the impact might be on communities in places like Cumbria in the future?
Tourism is a major, major money-making, job-making industry up there and I think a lot of people will be scared to visit in the winter. People can't get insurance, they can't sell their houses, transports affected—they will end up moving out. And this isn't a one-off. It has a really big knock-on effect. The whole local economy will be affected and the local community too, because people will move away if they can. And if the population shrinks, the area will receive less money from the government for protection against natural events, because there will be fewer people living there.
How about biodiversity—how will that be affected?
The timing of seasonal events, the way habitats can be used—these are just a couple of ways climate change will affect biodiversity. Big floods have big consequences: If there are fish spawning in a river, they will probably not survive. There might be water voles living in the river banks. If they're broken, they can no longer live there. It reduces the amount of habitat that is available. It will change all the water regimes, the rate of decomposition—things like the amount of carbon that is stored.
And why is it happening in that particular part of the country?
It's all to do with difference from sea level, the local topography, and the river system. If you're in a flood plane, chances are when there's heavy rain and the rivers can't handle it, you'll get flooded. There are so many rivers in that area, so they all converge together and flooding's more likely to happen. If London didn't have the Thames barrier, we'd probably have been flooded a lot by now—but because London's London, there are good flood defenses. The bigger the population and the more money, the better the defenses against flooding.