Sitting at my computer, once again I can hear the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops, a very familiar sound of late. I live in the South-east of England, where we are meant to be languishing under drought conditions and are banned from using hosepipes to water our flowerbeds or wash the dust off our cars. However, it seems to have been either raining – or threatening to do so – just about continuously since the first now-ironic “We are in drought” posters by Thames Water (with a background picture of parched soil) started appearing on bus shelters back in April.
On the BBC News at Ten last Thursday was a story about this continual rainfall, which caused much of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant to be a bit of a washout, and has brought about localised flooding here and there (my thanks to commentator Shevva at Bishop Hill for alerting me to to this item). It’s vanished from BBC iPlayer now, but I made a transcript, which you can read here. Along with the good news (the “record-breaking April weather has dramatically increased our river levels, and it’s given the reservoirs an opportunity to fill as well”) there’s the bad – “a warning today that the hosepipe ban should be a wakeup call, that we need to do much more to preserve our future supplies”.
A comment by Phillip Mills, a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers delivers the ominous message: “The water situation in the UK is becoming critical, and so we do need to think about it now. The situation is just going to get worse because of the impacts of climate change, with less rainfall, so less water availability.”
As other bloggers, and also Christopher Booker, writing in the Daily Telegraph, have pointed out, there’s more to the story than that. Our population is on the rise, and even as demand is going up, capacity is not being increased to match it (as per EU guidelines, the emphasis appears to have shifted from increasing capacity to reducing demand, i.e., using less and making do without.) One additional point I’d like to make is that lengthy droughts are actually a feature of the UK, and not some sort of horrible surprise that global warming is bringing upon us. Here’s the official blog of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, from March this year:
Skimming through the Weather paper I was intrigued to find that the longest UK drought episode in recent times lasted 20 years(!), when the ‘Long Drought’ of 1890-1910 led to “significant water supply problems” and “major and sustained groundwater impact” – including a period in London’s East End when a 73-day sequence of rainless days was reported! The paper states that “Although punctuated by several notably wet interludes, the 1890-1910 period includes the most sustained drought conditions captured in the instrumented record” and goes on to say, “A defining characteristic of the ‘Long Drought’ is the long sequences of very dry winters, especially in the English Lowlands.
So all in all, I think it unlikely this current episode will turn out to be all that special in the grand scheme of things. By the year 2112, who’s to say the rainy drought of 2012 will not have become a minor part of the climatic wallpaper, an unremarkable detail in one of its many recurring patterns? However, it has served to provide yet more shining examples of institutional wrong-headedness, where weather and climate are concerned. And talking of which – here is the Met Office’s 3-month outlook, dated 23 March 2012 (courtesy of the GWPF):
The forecast for average UK rainfall slightly favours drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June as a whole, and also slightly favours April being the driest of the 3 months. With this forecast, the water resources situation in southern, eastern and central England is likely to deteriorate further during the April-May-June period.
Poor old Met Office – turns out that it “has been the wettest April in the UK for over 100 years”. Oh dear.