Parts of the UK were battered by record-breaking storms in October. Bloated rivers. Hurricane-force wind speeds. Formidable ocean swells. Crumbling flood defences. Lives – and livelihoods – tragically swept away. Is this a sign of times to come?
Coastal regions – the dynamic and vulnerable intersection between land and sea – are now at the frontline of the climate crisis.
Over the last few weeks, the reality of this threatened frontier has hit the UK with record-breaking meteorological force. Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán raged across parts of the country, causing particular devastation to coastal and low-lying regions.
Tragic events stormed the national headlines, reporting huge costs to homes and human life.
Communities suffered hurricane wind speeds, unprecedented rainfall and extreme flooding.
The Effect of Recent Storms in the UK
When Storm Babet made its bleak and brutal appearance in north and eastern areas, it left approximately 30,000 homes without power in Scotland. Over 1,000 homes in England were submerged in water after flooding, and 30,000 properties required flood protections. Some areas endured the equivalent of two months of rainfall in just a few days.
Already waterlogged communities then braced for Storm Ciarán that largely swept through the south of the country, blowing hurricane-force winds of up to 102 mph across parts of England and the Channel Islands. Ciarán left a trail of chaos from uprooted trees and smashed cars right through to torn off roofs and severely flooded areas.
With thousands displaced and lives lost, it begs the question: what does the future of the UK look like in a climate changing world?
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Why is the UK Experiencing Extreme Storms?
The UK’s weather systems are nothing short of unique. Lying between the North Atlantic and continental Europe, the country is affected by 5 intercepting air masses bringing radically changeable weather conditions.
So, what’s so unseasonable about the recent storms in the UK?
Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán are believed to be caused by an unusually powerful jet stream. The jet stream is a fast band of strong winds swept in from the Atlantic. Although winter storms are common in the UK, the rapidity and severity of recent weather events is a cause for concern among experts.
Climate change is increasing global sea and air temperatures at an extraordinary rate. More heat and moisture in the atmosphere combined with warmer ocean surface temperatures creates a perfect storm of intense energy, high wind speeds and heavy rainfall.
Although the jet stream’s nature is changeable, previous research shows a fast-melting Arctic combined with rising temperatures in tropical areas is changing the speed and direction of the jet stream bringing record-breaking storms, floods, wildfires and droughts.
Crumbling Flood Defences
The UK’s coastline is beautiful, wild and vast, spanning across 11,073 miles. Yet parts are severely threatened as a result of a changing climate. Rising sea levels, storm surges and strong waves places coastal communities in an extremely vulnerable position.
Although it feels slightly apocalyptic to envisage entire cities, seaside towns and coastal landmarks disappearing underwater, this 2050 projection map deems it possible. The map compares two different warming scenarios, 2C and 4C above pre-industrial levels. In the worst case scenario (4C) parts of London, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, South Yorkshire and much of Lincolnshire will be completely submerged.
Effective flood defences (and reducing fossil fuel consumption, of course!) are key to protecting the UK’s coastline. However, the aftermath of Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán shows how grossly underprepared the UK is for these extreme – and often sudden – weather events.
An analysis by Unearthed exposed a large proportion of the UK’s flood defences were deemed “poor” or “very poor” following inspections by the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency owns and maintains over half the flood defences in the UK. The public body is under intense scrutiny after many vital defences failed communities during Storm Babet.
In response to Unearthed findings, Labour’s shadow environment secretary Steve Reed criticised the government’s “sticking-plastic approach to flooding [that] has left communities devastated and cost the economy billions of pounds.”
What’s more, Paul Morozzo, Greenpeace UK’s senior climate campaigner, said: “Our crumbling flood defences are a symbolic and literal demonstration of the government’s failure to tackle the climate crisis.”
“Storm Babet was a sobering reminder that the climate crisis is on our doorstep and that the cost – both in terms of lives lost and damage caused – is huge.”
“Without bold action to cut emissions as fast as possible, extreme storms and flooding will become more common and more intense. And without the necessary investment and upgrades, our flood defences will continue to fail.”
”By rowing back on its climate commitments and failing to ensure we have infrastructure needed to mitigate its impacts, the government has all but given up on the communities it is supposed to protect.”
More Ways the UK is Affected by Climate Change
Looking back at weather and ecological events over the last few years, it’s safe to say climate change is an unwelcome reality for Britons’ countrywide.
Alongside raging storms and rising sea levels, here are more ways the UK is affected by a warming world.
Associating the UK with protracted heat waves would have – at one time – been considered a wild oxymoron. However, MET Office findings show the UK has experienced 10 of the warmest years on record since 2002.
In June, July and August of 2022, temperatures peaked to 40.3 °C with the summer period being on par with 2018 – the warmest on record.
In 2023, temperatures weren’t so high; however, parts of the UK were enduring consecutive days of 30°C heat in September. Forecasters warned this was the first time on record such a prolonged heat wave occurred at that time of the year.
The MET predicts heat waves – like the infamous summer spell of 2018 – are 30 times more likely to happen due to climate change. This is a huge risk to human health, with the British Red Cross warning heat wave mortality is expected to more than triple by 2050.
Historically, wildfires are a once-in-a-century occurrence in some areas of the UK. However, a study by the University of Reading found wildfires could happen every other year over the next few decades as a result of rising temperatures. Long periods of hot and dry weather are the perfect conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread.
Did you know most wildfires are actually started by humans? A discarded cigarette, disposable barbeques and glass bottles have the capacity to set large areas ablaze during heatwaves. According to Statista, 2009 – 2022 saw an exponential increase in wildfires in the UK, with 2019 being particularly catastrophic.
Species Extinction and Loss of Biodiversity
According to the UK’s State of Nature report, 1 in 6 species are at risk of extinction. Abundance of species that were studied have declined on average by 19% since the 1970s.
Intensive agricultural activity combined with a rapidly growing climate crisis means iconic
native species from the hazel dormouse to the turtle dove are enduring huge population losses.
Warming seas and extreme weather events will also massively impact UK sea life. Puffins – a much beloved native seabird – are threatened by climate change and human activity. Disruption to nesting sites and food supplies mean UK populations are predicted to decline by a staggering 90% over the next few decades.
Atlantic salmon are also at risk of a warming UK climate. Freshwater streams and tributaries are vital during salmon spawning season. As water temperatures continue to rise, UK waters may become inhabitable for their eggs to thrive. This – combined with other pressures such as overfishing and pollution – means Atlantic salmon may disappear from the British Isles altogether.
Although the future of UK native species looks bleak, there is still hope. Record numbers of beavers have been reintroduced in the UK. Before then, beavers were extinct for 400 years but are now making a strong comeback!
Rewilding Britain celebrates beavers as the unparalleled “aquatic architects” of the natural world – and rightly so. Beavers are highly skilled at producing natural flood defences (think beaver dams!) and reducing siltation in the water which causes pollution. They also play a key role in wetland conservation, an ecosystem a host of native wildlife depends on.
Could we see more UK nature success stories in the future? Let’s hope so!
The UK and Climate Change: The Bottom Line
There is no doubt the UK is entering uncharted territory when it comes to climate change.
Extraordinary weather events – like Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán – are perhaps a sign of times to come. If global temperatures continue to rise to 2C, 2.6 million people are predicted to be at risk of severe flooding by 2050, while 3.3 million will be impacted under a 4C scenario.
But it’s not all bad news. Studies show that warming will more or less stop altogether if we drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero.
This means the future of our world is well and truly in our hands.