Tag Archives: Flooding

Reconciling humans and nature through ‘green infrastructure’

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

The Los Angeles River, and its iconic concrete channels, made the BBC news last week following discussions of a ‘greener’ LA River catchment by researchers at the American Geophysics Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The idea of ‘green infrastructure’ (or ‘blue-green infrastructure’) is proliferating internationally and essentially aims to reconcile humans and nature in urban and suburban settings, as opposed to employing previously favoured ‘hard engineering’ (i.e building man-made structures) strategies against flooding and other environmental threats. Green infrastructure initiatives have already begun on certain stretches of the LA River (e.g. see this National Geographic article from July 2014), however, this recent BBC article focusses on the complexities of such strategies.

The present concrete channels are vital in protecting Los Angeles from flood events by rapidly moving water away from the city and its residents, as outlined by one of the scientists interviewed in the article. This same scientist also notes that redesigning such a huge structure in the middle of a highly densely populated area is very difficult if the primary function to prevent flooding is to be maintained into the future as storms become more intense under climate change.

About a month prior to the focal news story of this article on the LA River, there was another story discussing droughts in the wider California area, with reservoirs and ground water supplies running dry as the state endures its third year of drought. This may sound like a wholly separate issue to flooding but a more integrative environmental management agenda implementing green infrastructure can contribute towards a host of environmental management foci, not just flood prevention. Indeed, one option discussed in the LA River article is to capture more water by creating a greater number of catchment basins to replenish groundwater supplies. However, this would ‘almost certainly’ necessitate moving people, homes and businesses, thus proving costly.

Here in the United Kingdom, Jones and Somper (2014) discuss integration of green infrastructure in London, highlighting the importance of collaboration between businesses, government and local communities and of making the socio-economic advantages of such infrastructure clear to investors. Jones and Somper provide examples of such collaboration, including Camden Council, who are actively encouraging the community to engage with ‘green issues’. Of course, expert opinion from geographers and others also has a large part to play alongside such collaborations. Indeed, research within the green infrastructure theme is thriving. For example, the Blue-Green Cities project emphasises the potential of such green strategies to provide resilience to flooding through adaptive management.

Overall then, green infrastructure seems to be able to offer much towards protecting people from environmental threats both now and into the future, while also encouraging a more harmonious relationship between people and nature in presently unnatural urban areas. If the known complexities of green infrastructure can be overcome to produce environmental solutions that make for a better future for both nature and humans (both practically and aesthetically), then this should surely be encouraged.

—–

books_icon Jones, S. & Somper, C. (2014). The role of green infrastructure in climate change adaptation in London. The Geographical Journal, 180 (2), 191–196.

Let’s get a proper grip on flooding

By Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Middlesex University, London

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

Flooded Riverside Worcester 2007. Photo Credit: Philip Haling under CC BY-SA 2.0

The floods in winter 2013 show the damage and disruption such events can cause. Spurred on by this flooding the government is moving to secure ‘affordable’ flood insurance arrangements, after a bruising ‘battle’ with the insurance industry and the prospect that the scheme will be vetoed in Europe. Flooding remains highly political!

But the total flood risk that England and Wales is facing has been exaggerated by the Environment Agency for over a decade, as this paper shows (Penning-Rowsell, 2014a). I am not saying that this country cannot suffer from serious flood events (as in 1947, 1953 and 2007). What I do say is that the average economic losses from fluvial and coastal flood are being exaggerated some 3-4 fold by the current national assessments, and that this is not a good basis for wise evidence-based decision making.

The annual average losses are not over £1bn as suggested by the Environment Agency (in NAFRA 2002), reaffirmed by Foresight in 2004, repeated again in the Agency’s Long Term Investment Strategy (LTIS, in 2009), cited in the National Audit Office report in 2011, and repeated once more in the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s 2012 report. The real annual average economic loss value is more like one quarter of that sum: my thinking is that flood depths are being exaggerated, as is the likelihood of existing flood defences being breached.

And the 2013/14 flooding supports this argument. Figure 1 shows that the years 2012 and 2013/14 are indeed above the average, but that the mean of £0.146 billion is actually lower than the mean for the years 1998 to 2010 (£0.147 billion). This is because the year 2011 saw relatively few floods, with a total flood insured loss of no more than £52 million (Penning-Rowsell, 2014b). Grossing up to total losses we get total annual average loss/compensation of c. £0.294bn. Again this is less than one quarter of the figure recently quoted in the Climate Change Risk Assessment.

Figure 1.  Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

Figure 1.
Insured flood losses to residential properties in England and Wales 1998-2014

The results of this research should help the Environment Agency improve its evidence base for the decisions that it has to make: better data equals better decisions. But for this we need a radical overhaul of the Agency’s methodology and data sources: what we have now is simply not good enough (as many involved privately admit). The results also need proper peer review – hitherto minimal – and a willingness to accept that risk may be much lower than those oft-quoted figures that appear now to have become embedded. We want flood risk to be taken seriously, but not at the expense of rigour and transparency.

About the author: Edmund Penning-Rowsell OBE is a Professor of Geography at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, London. Edmund is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Middlesex University and is currently a member of the Defra/Environment Agency Research Sponsoring Board. He was awarded the O.B.E by the Queen for services to flood risk management in May 2006.

 Penning-Rowsell, E. C. (2014), A realistic assessment of fluvial and coastal flood risk in England and Wales. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12053

 Penning-Rowsell, E C 2014b The 2013/14 floods: what do they tell us about overall flood risk in England and Wales? Circulation. Forthcoming.

60-world2.jpg (15×15) DEFRA 2013 Water Bill Flood Insurance: Flood Re – Finance and Accountability (pdf)

60-world2.jpg (15×15) Ross, T New flood insurance tax ‘could breach EU law’ The Telegraph 26 August 2013

Doing flood risk science differently?

By Helen Pallett

uk flooding 2007

The Summer 2007 UK foods. Image credit: Mat Fascione

A group of scientists at the University of Oxford have launched a new citizen science project to help them better understand the 2013-14 winter storms and flooding in the UK. Flooding events over the last decade have received increasing media attention and have been the object of controversies around the official responses. Debates have centred around the contribution of urbanisation to the increased frequency of flooding events, as well as the inadequacy of flood protection and flood response systems. But perhaps the most consistent topic of public debate has been the connection between (human induced) climate change and these extreme weather events.

The Oxford University project Weather@home 2014 asks whether and how much climate change has had an effect on the winter 2013-14 storms and floods and seeks to answer this question through the use of climate models. As the Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington explains here, running climate models can be time consuming but the more runs the team has to compare and plot, the clearer any trend will be. So the scientists invite anybody who is interested to sign up and help complete up to 30,000 climate model re-runs of winter 2013-14 with different assumptions about the influence of climate change on weather patterns.

This is an innovative citizen science project in that it expects its citizen scientists to contribute to the work of scientific analysis, rather than simply data collection (though the practice of climate modelling rather blurs this distinction). And it does seem an appropriate project in what has been labelled, ‘the year of the code’ (see for example, here). As with any citizen science project, however it has its limitations, especially in the role carved out for the citizen scientists. Assuming the participants are able to code (and clearly many people cannot), they are free to run as many model runs as they like, set within the scientific and technological framework provided by the Oxford University scientists. The participants, cannot for example, come up with competing models, do runs which seek to answer different questions about the floods, or draw on their own knowledge or experience of the winter floods in their engagement with the project. The scientific framing of this project is a highly contentious one within the climate science community, with many other scientists arguing that the task of attempting to attribute extreme weather events to climate change is impossible and unhelpful. Yet the participants have no say in this.

This shouldn’t surprise us of course, and does not prevent it from being a potentially productive and enriching experience for the both the scientists and citizen scientists involved. But another group of researchers has also been experimenting with involving non-scientists in flood-risk science in a very different way. The flood scientist Stuart Lane along with an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists attempted an experiment in flood management involving scientific experts and citizens with experience of flooding, but without giving them pre-defined roles. Natural and social scientists and citizens worked together to generate new knowledge about a flooding event, and to negotiate the different assumptions and commitments of each group, in order to inform public interventions in flood risk management. Thus all members of the group were seen to have relevant and useful knowledge, and efforts were made to develop collective understandings which were not differentiated between academics and non-academics. This research project contributed to scientific understandings of flood hydrology through the creation of new models for example, and also the collection of qualitative understandings and experiences of flooding. But it also helped to overcome an impasse in the management of floods in Pickering, the area under study, where no decision had been made about the appropriate use of resources for flood risk management, by helping to reconfigure relationships between the scientific ‘experts’ and local people.

These contrasting citizen science projects, both focussed on flooding, help to showcase the wide range of ways in which non-scientists can be involved in research projects. However, they also show the importance of aims and framing in determining the outcomes of the project and the ways in which non-scientists participate. The Oxford University project was framed as a conventional scientific study aiming to show how climate change had influenced recent extreme weather events, and co-opting citizen scientists as volunteers to help get the scientific work done more quickly. In the case of the Pickering flooding experiment, the researchers had no clear scientific aim, but rather were deliberately attempting to unsettle power relations between so-called experts and non-experts, and to see if this had an impact of the flood management plans people emerged with. Whilst many will claim that the scientific robustness of the knowledge and flood models generated by the latter project are undermined by the researcher’s determination to involve non-scientists at all stages, the project’s political and practical outcomes (and therefore the impacts on the citizen scientists) were overwhelmingly positive.

S N Lane, N Odoni, C Landstrom, S J Whatmore, N Ward & S Bradley 2011 Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(1): 15-36

Citizen scientists test influence of climate change on UK winter deluge: results poor in Guardian – Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, March 24th

Weather@home 2014: the causes of the UK winter floods, climateprediction.net

No change from climate change: island vulnerability

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

by Ilan Kelman

Climate change is often touted as humanity’s biggest development challenge. Low-lying, tropical islands are particularly highlighted as potentially experiencing future devastation. How accurate is this rhetoric?

No doubt exists that many islanders are suffering under climate change. Residents of the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea have been forced to move as sea-level rise encroaches on their villages.

Many other island locations are also experiencing climate change impacts, but in tandem with other development challenges which have existed for decades. Also in the Pacific, Kiribati is severely threatened by sea-level rise. But the people there have long been trying to solve other devastating problems including urban planning, land use, and water resources.

Focusing on climate change problems has the unfortunate consequence of distracting from other development challenges. In particular, the physical hazard of climate change to islands and islanders is often emphasised, tending to promote technocratic responses for only climate change. Integrated approaches focusing on island peoples, communities, and livelihoods are frequently sidelined.

The fundamental question is why inequality and power relations have left many island communities with few options for responding to climate change. That is the same as the long-standing questions about why inequality and power relations have left many island communities unable to tackle the root causes of their multiple vulnerabilities.

The difficulty is not so much addressing the hazard of climate change per se. Instead, it is understanding why islanders often continue to be denied the resources and options to address climate change themselves–just as with the other development challenges that have pervaded for decades.

In that regard, climate change brings little to the islands that is new.

The author: Dr. Ilan Kelman is Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).

books_icon Kelman I 2013 No change from climate change: vulnerability and small island developing states The Geographical Journal DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12019

60-world2Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2013 Mangroves in the Marshall Islands to protect local community (Press release) Scoop 24 January

Before the Flood: Modelling Hybridity at the Science-Policy Interface

Martin Mahony

Yesterday the UK Met Office reported that 2012 was the country’s second wettest year on record. The announcement was much anticipated, partly due to the simultaneous flooding of large swathes of rural and urban Britain which has seen everything from inundated homes to seals swimming in lakes 50 miles from the coastline. A competitive spirit seemed to grip the media, as we eagerly awaited confirmation that what had been experienced over the course of 2012 was some kind of state of exception – a radical departure from the everyday interactions of humans and their environments.

Climate change inevitably entered the debate, although recent weather events in the UK and the US (i.e. Hurricane Sandy) have meant that much of the discussion has been about adaptation to new trends and extremes, rather than about the potential to mitigate the causes of climate change (see Climate Central’s discussion of newspaper trends).  Adaptation to climate change sees the sciences of the weather coming into contact with concerns about human health, land-use change, agriculture, energy supply, and a host of other topics which have long been of interest to both human and physical geographers alike.

Scientific models which claim to offer the prospect of knowing and perhaps controlling the future exercise a particular power over such debates (see for example an analysis in Transactions by Mike Hulme and myself of a particularly widely-used regional climate model). In a new essay in Transactions, Nick Green explores the potential of agent-based modelling to inform policy-making about land-use change. These computational tools consist of various ‘agents’ representing things such as households, individuals and businesses. By simulating the interactions of these entities, the models can offer plausible pictures of how land-use patterns may change over time, thus potentially informing decisions about things like flood defences. However, the predictive skill of such models is still questionable, and the interpretation of their results requires a complex interplay of different forms of reasoning across the conventional science-policy boundary; mathematical logic must combine with personal intuition and subjective judgement if the models’ fuzzy outputs are to be used appropriately in the fuzzy world of environmental policy-making.

In a 2011 paper, Stuart Lane and colleagues report a project in which the relations between scientific models, scientists, stakeholders and members of the public were fundamentally re-ordered. After a history of failed flood management practices in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, the researchers instigated a collaborative knowledge-making exercise in which expert knowledge was combined with what was found to be widely-distributed and sophisticated knowledge of the local hydrology among Ryedale residents. New forms of knowledge emerged, some of which were codified into model form. The authors argue that in situations where trust in experts and institutions is contested, ‘science’ is not best served by seeking to extract it from ‘politics’. By embracing the hybridity of science and politics (e.g. through making destabilizing political interventions through new ways of producing scientific knowledge), political empowerment can proceed in tandem with robust environmental decision-making.

If indeed our wet 2012 is a harbinger of a wetter future, innovative approaches to knowledge production and decision-making will be central to society’s adaptation to a changing climate. Geographers can provide not only the necessary technical tools and skills, but also the broader methods needed to ensure that decision-making  is always informed, inclusive, and just.

2012 second wettest year on record for UKThe Guardian

Seal spotted swimming in flooded Cambridgeshire field 50 miles inlandThe Guardian

Martin Mahony & Mike Hulme, 2012, Model Migrations: Mobility and Boundary Crossings in Regional Climate PredictionTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 197-211

Nick Green, 2013, A Policymaker’s Puzzle, or How to Cross the Boundary from Agent-based Model to Land-use Policymaking?,  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 2-6

Stuart Lane et al., 2011 Doing Flood Risk Science Differently: An Experiment in Radical Scientific MethodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 15-36

The Return of that Great British Institution, the Weather

By Briony Turner

Source: author

Somewhat regrettably, those scorching days admiring sporting finesse, feeling the heat of the sun against skin (and the 100% recycled polyester iconic top of a Games Maker –the not so regrettable aspect) are now a distant memory, washed out by a month’s worth of downpour in one day.

Having had the topic of weather embargoed for the summer (Games Makers were implored not to be quintessentially British and moan about the weather), the country has returned to its favourite topic of conversation, wiping even the Duchess of Cambridge off the front pages.  According to the Met Office official blog, the culprit is an ‘unusually active’ and ‘lingering’ (blame that part on the jet stream) low pressure system from the Atlantic which has had a field day moving north across the UK, picking up the cooler polar air en route, causing a deeper depression, not only meteorologically but also metaphorically in its wake.

Future climate projections suggest a rise in frequency of such extreme events.  Some geographers, Marc Tadaki and colleagues, are caught up in whether physical geography needs to exist,  and/or indulge in a ‘navel gazing and angst’ debate as to the purpose of geography (Dalby, 2012 p.270).  However, others have simply rolled up their sleeves and are conducting geographical analyses, improving the understanding of and addressing climate change and human vulnerabilities, as noted by Simon Dalby in his recent book review in The Geographical Journal.   These applications and analyses form the basis of information provided by organisations like the Environment Agency, whose website provides the latest flood alerts and enables householders to identify the extent to which, if at all, their homes are at risk of flooding. A catastrophe modelling firm, working with the European Space Agency, has recently launched a mapping tool with geo-coded ‘snapshots’ and impact assessment features to help insurers handle the aftermath of flooding.

Extensive systems and infrastructure, including governance arrangements, are in place to attempt to reduce the impact and effects of flooding.  Homeowners in the UK at risk of flooding currently benefit from the “Statement of Principles”, an agreement between Government and insurers, although it will expire on the 1st July 2013.  Defra are currently working on a replacement.  An article in The Geographical Journal, provides a timely reminder of the complexities encountered in public engagement within flood risk management (FRM) and the potential negative consequences that can result if the local micro-politics are not understood and sensitivities, particularly repercussions of shifts in local power relations, are not accounted for before application of FRM engagement.

One way of reducing the scale of flooding in urban areas is to intercept and delay rain and surface runoff by utilising and improving urban ecosystems.  Built environment industry experts are looking at innovative ways of ecologically adapting the built environment, there’s an annual conference and, this year, a public exhibition of the Integrated Habitats Design Competition’s winners and finalists in October at the Natural History Museum (a Fringe Event of the UN Convention on Biodiversity).  This just goes to show that urban ecosystems can be enhanced, have social, economic as well as ecological value and, as Robert Francis and colleagues point out in their article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, offer opportunities for innovative research.

Flooding – availability and coverage of insurance Association of British Insurers

S. Dalby, 2012, Geo 2.0: digital tools, geographical vision and a changing planet, The Geographical Journal 178 270–274

UK Climate Projections:  Briefing report (UKCP09) Defra

R. A. Francis, J. Lorimer and M. Raco, 2012, Urban ecosystems as ‘natural’ homes for biogeographical boundary crossings, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 183–190

Defra tweaking statement of principles replacement Insurance Times.co.uk

What’s bringing the stormy weather to the UK? Official blog of the Met Office news team

Satellite Flood Footprints PERILS

M. Tadaki, J. Salmond, R.  Le Heron and G. Brierley, 2012, Nature, culture, and the work of physical geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 547–562

C-P. Tseng, and E.C. Penning-Rowsell, 2012, Micro-political and related barriers to stakeholder engagement in flood risk management, The Geographical Journal 178 253–269.

Britain gets almost a month of rain in 24 hours , The Guardian