There are around 1,200 residents on the small island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides according to The Guardian and when it comes to climate change, they know all too well what that means.
In 2005, severe storms drowned five people who were travelling along the coast on the island in a car. Increasingly, people living on Benbecula and other islands such as Uist, have seen the sea claim more and more of their island. On 7th March, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a highly poignant report entitled Impacts of Climate Change on Disadvantaged UK Coastal Communities. It reveals that sea levels around the UK may very well reach some 2 metres and are very likely to have a severe impact on coastal communities by 2080. The rise in sea levels, along with severe storms, will lead to more coastal flooding requiring residents of such communities to consider seriously how to react.
Arguably, such disasters have already started to occur. The Boscastle flooding of 2004 was caused by enormous amounts of rain falling on the surrounding hills over a period of eight hours thereby causing a flash flood that swept ferociously through the village. The Environment Agency commissioned a survey by consulting firm HR Wallingford which concluded that this event was one of the most extreme weather events experienced by the UK. At its peak the water flow was 140 cubic metres per second and that the annual chance of such a storm occurring in any one year is about 1 in 400. The storm was probably caused by remnants of Hurricane Alex that had crossed the Atlantic.
Three years later and it was the turn of residents in Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. The floods of summer 2007 have been judged to be one of the worst civil emergencies the country has ever seen. April that year was extremely dry, but the summer months that followed were some of the wettest on record. Two months rain fell in 14 hours on July 20th alone causing devastation to at least 5,000 homes and businesses. Many communities were completely cut off and 48,000 homes suffered a drastic loss of power for two days with the whole county coming close to experiencing zero electricity supplies. The story was similar with regard to water supply. At least half the homes in Gloucestershire and around 7,500 businesses were deprived of water for up to 12 days, 17days without adequate supplies of drinking water. This led the emergency services to issue some 40 million bottles of drinking water and 1,400 bowsers deployed (Gloucestershire County Council website).
The rainfall experienced by the UK in 2007 was around 20% higher than any seen since records began in 1879. Although it is not entirely possible to say whether this was the result of climate change, it fits the predicted pattern of squally \’monsoon\’ type rainfall that has been cited as one possible effect of climate change. The real issue however is whether attitudes have changed in the face of such extreme weather events. Recent research has found that the rainfall and associated flooding of 2004 and 2007 could indeed be linked to climate change, but is that finding accepted by members of the public within the UK?
Jeremy Richardson, director of engineering consultancy URS-Scott Wilson, who co-authored the recent Joseph Rowntree report stated that \”We haven\’t devoted enough time to debating these issues\”. Essentially, what he\’s saying is that the British public need to wake up fast with regard to climate change and the extreme weather events it will bring in the years ahead.
\”Because we\’re talking about what happens in 2050 to 2080, people tend not to talk about this\” he says \”but the coast is going to be at the forefront of these climate change impacts. We\’re not just talking about flooding or drought, but also rising sea levels and an increase in storminess; it will affect a lot of towns, many of which are especially vulnerable because they are isolated geographically.\”
Some 17% of the UK coastline is already experiencing the effects of coastal erosion. Many people in the Welsh town of Llanelli believe that much of the town will be under water within the next 50 years while the Yorkshire holiday town of Skegness will, in all likelihood, experience similar problems. Much of Skegness consists of low, single-storey buildings and there is a \’hidden population\’ living in the caravan parks around the town.
Jeremy Richardson is quite clear about what needs to be done. He believes that is vital that the government provide coastal communities with resources to combat climate change.
\”We are an island nation; we live and die by the sea,\” he says. \”Even if protecting the coastline does not make sense in cost-benefit terms, it is vital to our national character and identity.\”