By Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway University of London
The UK winter floods of 2013-14 were unquestionably severe caused by winter storms that brought with them record levels of rainfall and long standing flooding to southern England, most notably the Somerset Levels. Other parts of the UK were also affected, coastal towns in Wales were battered by stormy weather and parts of the Scotland also recorded some of the highest levels of rainfall ever recorded. Political leaders of all the main parties were swift to visit affected areas, and the government organization responsible for flood management the Environment Agency and its embattled chief Lord Smith endured a barrage of criticism for late and or inadequate flood preparation, warnings and responsiveness. For weeks, stories and images of the flood and its impact on communities and infrastructure filled the airwaves. Some communities were affectively cut off while others lost their homes and possessions. The insurance industry estimated that the cost of the flooding exceeded £1 billion but it was lower than the estimated cost of the 2007 summer floods, which were put at over £3 billion.
As a recent themed section on the UK winter floods 2013-4 published in The Geographical Journal argues, there is a great deal more analytical work to be done in terms of how we make sense of such extreme events and what we might learn in the aftermath. One noticeable element in the 2013-4 winter storms was the presence of social media and the role that tweeting and Facebook played in raising flood awareness (#floodaware #thinkdontsink) and the sharing of images and stories relating to the flooding. This autumn the Environment Agency has taken again to social media to warn audiences about flood risk and prevention measures. Citizens, in potentially affected areas, are encouraged to check the real time mapping and monitoring of rivers and coastlines.
Combining historical and cultural geographers with fluvial geographers and hydrological modellers, the themed section ruminates on the social, economic, political and physical geographies of the flooding and the storm surges. It poses questions not only about how flooding is understood (both scientifically and culturally) but also how it impacts on communities and landscapes, some of whom enjoyed greater publicity than others. Campaigners for the affected Somerset Levels were particularly successful in generating media attention, as were home-owners and businesses along the River Thames. Flood geographers, as we might term it, are also in the thick of things when it comes to flood forecasting and advising agencies on how government and communities should prepare in the future for such extreme events. Preparedness combined with individual and communal resilience have been championed as indispensable and perhaps social media provided a resource of sorts for such resilience as people shared advice and experiences of flooding.
But as our themed section also shows that rivers including flood plains are complex and lively spaces. They vary in terms of flood risk vulnerability and this is as much to do with their materiality as it is due to historic and contemporary patterns of human occupation. For centuries, humans have intervened in such environments and introduced flood embanking, channel dredging, and manipulated the volume and flow speed of rivers. Moreover coastal environments have experienced a patchwork of interventions from hard to soft forms of coastal engineering. We have, over the years, sought to intervene in order to mitigate, and even prevent unwelcome futures.
Lets hope if severe winter storms affect the UK again in 2014-5 we will be able to conclude that we are somewhat wiser as a consequence of our experiences in the winter of 2013-4.
About the author: Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics within the Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London. Klaus is also the Editor of The Geography Journal.
The Geographical Journal themed section in full:
Dodds, K. (2014), Après le deluge: the UK winter storms of 2013–14. The Geographical Journal, 180: 294–296. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12126
Thorne, C. (2014), Geographies of UK flooding in 2013/4. The Geographical Journal, 180: 297–309. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12122 (open access)
Stephens, E. and Cloke, H. (2014), Improving flood forecasts for better flood preparedness in the UK (and beyond). The Geographical Journal, 180: 310–316. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12103
Lewin, J. (2014), The English floodplain. The Geographical Journal, 180: 317–325. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12093
McEwen, L., Jones, O. and Robertson, I. (2014), ‘A glorious time?’ Some reflections on flooding in the Somerset Levels. The Geographical Journal, 180: 326–337. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12125
Clout, H. (2014), Reflections on The draining of the Somerset Levels. The Geographical Journal, 180: 338–341. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12088
Ugwumandu J (2014) Severe winter weather to cost UK insurers £1.1bn, says ABI The Actuary, 13 March 2014
Gov.uk (2014) Check flood warnings and river levels