Oh Dear, Historically Speaking this Stormy Weather is Ordinary

…..but floods call into question our rigid planning system

Driving through the drenched saturated-sponge landscapes of the Cothi and Tywi valleys in Carmarthenshire today, windscreen wipers whirring away, the yellow-grey sky heavy with rain, it was a struggle to convince myself that this is not the most dismal winter ever. For people evacuated out of the Somerset Levels by deluge after deluge, it does seem to be the worst in living memory.

I have a book called ‘Agricultural Records AD 220-1977, by J M Stratton and Jack Houghton Brown[1], who brought up to date an 1883 book, ‘Records of the Seasons, Prices of Agricultural Produce, and Phenomena Observed in the British Isles, by Thomas H Baker. ‘Agricultural Records’ is a reminder that the last century has been a period of relatively benign weather in the British Isles, because the weather in history has often been appalling.

In 1236, when Henry III was king, “January, February and early March brought unusually heavy rainfall, consequently rivers rose and caused much flooding. In February it is said that the rain fell for eight days without ceasing. Autumn, too, was very wet with much flooding and high tides along the coasts. There was much loss of cattle and also of human life”.

A great flood in 1287 drowned some 500 people in Norfolk, but over the North Sea in Holland, many thousands, perhaps over 50,000 people, died in the flood which enlarged the pre-existing lake into the Zuider Zee, which remained as open water until the construction of the Afsluitdijk to keep the sea out. This dyke was completed in 1932, the land was reclaimed and is now the province of Flevoland, but keeping the sea at bay demands continual dyke maintenance, for ever .

Back in England, in 1315, after a succession of years with heavy rains, exceptional rains in July and August wiped out the grain harvest. “There was heavy mortality among human beings and cattle, and the situation was aggravated by plague among cattle”, the book says. In 1316 “[p]erpetual rains and cold weather not only destroyed the harvest, but bred a mortality among the cattle, and raised every kind of food to an enormous price”.

The notes from recorded history show that what passes as ‘good’ weather for us – plenty of sun, enough rain for plants to thrive – is by no means normal. Our epoch in geological time, an interglacial in the Quaternary Ice Age, situates us in a relatively ice-light interval of unknown duration. Previous Quaternary interglacials seem to have lasted for an average of about 10,000 years, and if the present one followed that pattern, it would be well into its final phase now, but the colossal escape into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other warming gases, resulting from humans’ use of fossil fuels, may delay the start of the next glacial period, as well as having more immediate repercussions.

Ice cores from Greenland indicate that, during the past quarter of a million years, climate changes have been abrupt. The cores show that the present interglacial is unusual in that the climate has been more stable than in previous interglacials, meaning that although our weather can appear extremely unpleasant to us, if we had been living in the previous interglacial, it would have been even worse.

There is a profound link between climate and civilisation.[2] The relatively benign climate of the interglacial which began about 15,000 years ago – although often miserable and even fatal for us — is an important reason for the continuity of human endeavour and the development of civilisation.  Sad, then that civilisation has enabled us to acquire the destructive power to affect the climatic system, but never to control it.

These days we tend to assume that settlements are permanent, but for nearly all of human history people have been on the move, responding to climate change, extreme weather, the need to find water and food. Current patterns of settlement and home ownership in the UK make it very hard for people to move to sites that are safer, safer in the short term at least. Movement out of hazardous locations is difficult because of rigid planning zones which prohibit construction in safer places unless they have been zoned for housing. Movement out is also difficult because of the amounts of capital that home-owners have sunk into properties that few people will want to move into. How can they move, if they owe a mortgage on a home they cannot sell for anything like the price they paid for it? With one home in every six in the UK estimated to be at risk of future flooding, the problem is huge.

by Pat Dodd Racher

[1] London: John Baker, second edition 1978.

[2] ‘Was agriculture impossible during the Pleistocene but mandatory during the Holocene? A climate change hypothesis’, by P J Richerson, R Boyd and R L Bettinger, in ‘American Antiquity’ 66 (3) pp387-411, 2001


4 Comments on “Oh Dear, Historically Speaking this Stormy Weather is Ordinary”

  1. samalbahaykubo says:

    Sounds like most of my 15 summers in Wales

    • Wales is no French Riviera, but the rains seem much heavier now, and persist for longer. To cope, we are going to have to stop building on floodplains — but the Environment Agency, which advises planners on flood risk, is far too complacent, in my opinion. As a result we have new buildings in entirely the wrong places.

      • samalbahaykubo says:

        I recall watching the mid-evening news in Wales sometime in the late-70s. The news item concerned the building of a housing estate on low-lying agricultural land that was always prone to flooding. I think that greed has increased over time, and consequently the reports of ill considered developments have followed. Nice blog, yours!

      • Thank you very much. The zoning regulations are out of date, I think. There needs to be much more flexibility to change development zones, which currently include too many sites at risk of future flooding. Planners tend to think of the future as a continuation of the past, rather than asking ‘What if?’, and therefore are very often behind the curve. I dare say it is the same in other countries too!

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