More rain? Cut flood defences

While Nick Clegg prepares to run a snow job on the people who voted LibDem last time (let me know how that works for you, folks) the rain keeps falling.

This year may be the wettest since records began in 1910.

In London, the Thames Barrier was raised on Thursday morning for the first time since March 2010, to reduce the risk of flooding as water from days of downpours causes high levels further upstream. It will be raised again on Friday morning.

A storm brewing in the Atlantic could bring up to two inches (50mm) of rain and 80mph winds in some areas this weekend.

Provisional figures show that 1.8in (46mm) of rain is needed between 27 and 31 December for 2012 to be the wettest year on record for the UK.

A new record has already been set for England, with 43.1in (1,095.8mm) falling between 1 January and Boxing Day, the Met Office said.

I don’t think I’ve blogged about the rain since July, but I’ve been very personally conscious that this year has been wet, wet, wetter, wettest: my rosemary died because it had been overwatered, there are various items of outdoor DIY I’ve been wanting to get done and have never had a dry stretch to do them, and altogether: it’s been wet.

Apparently – in theory – it will get cool and dry by the end of day on the 31st, so 1st January 2013 will open dryly, however the year continues: people foolish enough to come to Edinburgh for a street party on the 31st/1st will only get rained on some of the time.

As ever, in the UK, we talk a lot about the weather but every time it goes a bit weird rail and road travel gets difficult – on the Bathgate line the other day there were no trains, only an unexpected bus, and I suppose we were lucky to get that.

But although we see reports all over the news about the weather, how often does the mainstream media remember to point out that this is climate change? Maybe 2013 will be dryer than 2012 – the wettest year on record before this was 2000 – but globally we are looking at massive change:

On September 16th last, Arctic sea ice hit its lowest level ever recorded, at 3.41 million sq km, barely half the 1979-2000 average. The area of sea ice lost is 41 times larger than the island of Ireland. While the drop in sea ice extent is alarming, the 72 per cent decline in its volume is worse. Not only is ice cover shrinking, the surviving ice is thinning precipitously.

Prof Peter Wadhams of the Polar Ocean Physics Group described the September 2012 figures as a “global disaster”. He now projects the destruction of Arctic summer sea ice by 2015-16 – more than half a century ahead of the IPCC’s projections. “The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be complete by those dates,” he added.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of what is now unfolding in the Arctic region. The Arctic ice cap used to cover 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface, and the ice albedo effect meant vast amounts of solar energy were bounced back into space from the bright white ice mass.

Losing this ice, and replacing it with dark open ocean, creates a dramatic tipping point in planetary energy balance.

That’s in just a few years.

Arctic cyclone melts sea iceWe are seeing the effects already: we have been seeing them and getting soaked by them all year long:

The jet stream, which operates between the cold Arctic and the warmer mid-latitudes, dominates much of our weather, and it is weakening and becoming more erratic as Arctic ice melt accelerates and the region warms. The severe cold snaps that brought Ireland to a shivering halt in 2010 and 2011, as well as this summer’s relentless rainfall, are probably connected to Arctic ice cover loss. Jet stream weakness is leading to what are known as blocking events – episodes of extreme weather, be they droughts, freezes or flooding, persisting for unusually long periods. The Russian heatwave of 2010 and the extreme US drought this summer are two more related events.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” says James Overland of the University of Washington. The weakening jet stream means “wild temperature swings and greater numbers of extreme events”. The last time the Arctic is believed to have been ice-free is during the Eemian period, about 125,000 years ago, when global sea levels were between four and six metres higher than today. However, current atmospheric CO2 levels are already far higher than during the Eemian; indeed, you would have to go back several million years to find any era in the Earth’s history to match today’s levels of this powerful heat-trapping “greenhouse gas”.

Lags in the system mean that we have so far experienced only the very mildest of the effects of the ever-growing heat imbalance in our climate system. In July, another stark regional landmark was recorded. In the course of just four days, surface ice melt spread from 40 to 97 per cent of Greenland.

Meantime, companies like Shell, claiming that the oil to be found once the Arctic summer ice is gone is “essential to securing energy supplies for the future” are slavering over estimates

that the Arctic holds around 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its yet-to-find oil. This amounts to around 400 billion barrels of oil equivalent, 10 times the total oil and gas produced to date in the North Sea.

In short, not content with the damage done already, Shell wants to do more. Shell wanted to be drilling in the Arctic this year, wants to drill there next summer: but

Documents obtained by [Seattle’s NPR radio affiliate KUOW] through FOIA requests indicate that Shell’s oil spill response gear failed spectacularly in tests this fall in the relatively tranquil waters of Puget Sound.

The containment dome — which Shell sought to assure federal regulators would be adequate to cap a blowout in the event of emergency at its Arctic operations — failed miserably in tests. The dome “breached like a whale” after malfunctioning, and then sank 120 feet. When the crew of the Arctic Challenger recovered the 20-foot-tall containment dome, they found that it had “crushed like a beer can” under pressure.

Being serious about climate change means cutting down on our use of oil. Not “someday”, nor in a decade or twenty years: now. Not as individuals, but as nations. That we have not done so already is a tribute to the money and the power brought by the forces of oil to claim that they should be allowed to continue profiteering.

Boris Johnson notably invited a climate change sceptic to be the keynote speaker in his “Environment Imperative” debate this August. Donald Trump’s angry protests against an offshore windfarm have been given an unreasonable amount of attention given all he really had to say was that he’d got his golfcourse and now he wanted a view. The Pope seems to think that equal marriage is worse for the environment than oil, TV Tropes won’t allow any real-life examples of climate change on the grounds that in the US this is flame bait, because it has become an article of faith for the Republican Party that climate change is just an invention of the left, not something that’s really causing tornados and hurricanes.

Meantime, in the UK, if you live in a flood-risk area the insurance industry intends to stop insuring your home against flood damage from 2013 (though if you live away from a flood-risk area for now, the insurance industry is quite happy to continue taking your premiums until it perceives a risk it might have to pay out on a regular basis).

Among the UK government’s many wasteful cuts, they’re not spending the money on flood defenses that they used to. After all, London already has the Thames Barrier, and what does George Osborne care about you?

Until it was severely embarrassed by October’s floods in north Wales, the shortsighted, ecologically illiterate Treasury had actually cut spending on defences by £95m a year, forcing the abandonment or postponement of hundreds of mainly low-cost, much-needed schemes.

And, while Pitt proposed local authorities should take more responsibility for flooding in their areas, the much-needed restructuring of a complex, outdated protection system has been fatally undermined by George Osborne slashing their grants. Even with the extra £120m, to be spent over some time, announced four weeks ago, this government is spending less on defences than Labour was in 2008, the year after the worst floods in 60 years.

Matters are only likely to get worse. The new fast-track, stripped-down planning system will be mostly in the hands of business, cash-strapped communities and local authorities, who, in the absence of strategic oversight, are expected to make it easier for developers to build in flood plains. Roughly 10% of all new building applications are each year approved against the Environment Agency’s explicit flood advice, and in 2010 almost 9,254 new homes were built in danger areas.

Meanwhile, the government has delayed for two years the mandatory adoption of more porous drainage systems that delay water getting into rivers and greatly reduce surface water flooding.

Alex Salmond may claim a “moral imperative” to invest in alternative energy, but the SNP plans for economic independence are still resting on the idea that North Sea oil can keep pumping.

Happy new year, everybody.

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Filed under Housing, Sustainable Politics

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