(The British Isles, upper right, beset by tempests on February 5, 2014. One storm is located over the western coasts of the UK as two convergent storms lurk to the northwest and southwest respectively. Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)
It’s been the litany for the United Kingdom ever since December unleashed her fury on the island nation’s rocky coasts. Then, the isles witnessed their windiest month ever in a series of storm events that threw about 100 ton boulders and reshaped coastal cliffs as if they were child’s toys. A month later, the wettest January on record cut off entire towns from road transport while flooding thousands of hectares of low-lying farmland. Now, with 23 straight days of rain occurring in January and with February hot on its heels, it appears that the UK may see its wettest winter in at least 100 years.
The severe weather tally listed by the UK Met Office just goes on and on. Some highlights:
- December was the 5th wettest month on record. January was the wettest. Combined, the January-December period was the wettest such period for at least 100 years.
- There were more days of rain for January than for any month dating back 100 years.
- For Southern England the period since December 12th was likely the wettest in 258 years.
- Five months (153 days) worth of typical rainfall occurred in the 50 day period from December 12 to January 31.
This week, according to reports from BBC News, the most recent major storm of February 4-6 had cut off rail transport to a section of southwestern England even as coastal towns were besieged by mountainous surf and tens of thousands again lost power. The endless assault of wind, waves and rain also left buildings damaged, destroyed or undercut even as numerous coastal towns were left awash in the rising surf. Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, and Dawlish bore the heaviest blows as a massive sea wall protecting these coastal towns suffered severe damage. The rail line, riding along the back of the sea wall, was severed on Wednesday when a section of the wall was ripped out by battering waves and the overlaying rail buckled due to loss of support. A train, stranded on the tracks due to this damage, was battered by waves for nearly an hour before the passengers could be evacuated.
(Massive waves over-top the sea wall to inundate Chesil Beach in Dorset, England. Image source: Paul McEvily.)
The ongoing assault of extreme weather has finally spurred an anemic UK government into action — calling up the military and releasing 230 million pounds in emergency funds. The aim is to provide effective response to the current disaster in a long string that has now extended to nearly two months and continues to serve up powerful storms delivering heavy rains and hurricane-force winds with almost bi-weekly frequency.
Conservatives, who had been ideologically opposed to responses to human-caused climate change (which they seem to believe they can wish away), appear to have been caught flat-fooded by the recent string of disasters as the government had cut funding to flood prevention efforts by more than 10% over 2013. These cuts took place at the same time that some of the wettest spring-time weather on record abruptly switched to extreme summer drought and wildfires and as climatologists were increasingly warning of severe weather risks for both the UK and Europe as the globe continued to warm. Climate change, on the other hand, suffered from no such lack of clarity — battering England with a two month period of record shattering weather that is likely to extend at least through February.
Three more strong storms on the way
After so long an intense period of storminess, one would expect a bit of respite. For what the UK has suffered amounts to the fury of a nearly two month long hurricane. But there is yet no rest for storm-ravaged England. NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Center, the Euro, and the GFS models all predict a powerful 950 mb storm to rush into England on the 8th. This storm is expected to be at least as potent as the most recent disaster with a wide field of hurricane force winds and heavy rains:
(The 48 hour forecast from NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Center hows a 950 mb low centered directly over the UK on February 8th. This storm is predicted to bring hurricane force winds and heavy rains to the already battered British Isles. Image source: Ocean Prediction Center/NOAA.)
Just 3 days later, on the 11th, the Euro model shows another 950 mb or stronger storm ravaging the English coast. And that storm has barely time to leave before a 958 mb tempest arrives hot on its heels by February 14th. So as far as the 10 day model runs extend, we are still in a situation of wall-to-wall storminess of hurricane intensity for England.
Greenland melt, warming tropics, a slowing Gulf Stream and a Mangled Jet
So what brought us to this pass? And what can we expect for the future?
For almost two decades, climate scientists have warned that a combination of Greenland melt, a relative cooling and freshening of the North Atlantic near Greenland and a slowing of the Gulf Stream would likely result in a number of increasingly severe storms. In the long-term model runs, these storms became even more intense as the tropics warmed and the ice-berg effect caused the area near Greenland to cool. The ever-increasing temperature differentials were predicted to cause major instability. It was the likelihood that massive storms would result from this interplay of increasing heat and increasing melt that, in part, spurred James Hansen to write his seminal work The Storms of My Grandchildren.
More recently, scientists such as Dr. Jennifer Francis have warned that polar sea ice retreat was causing in a weakening of the Jet Stream, creating the potential for very severe weather situations during the Fall, Winter, and Spring months as well as heightening the number of more persistent weather patterns called blocking patterns. In addition, since 2004, we have observed a slowing of the Gulf Stream by 10-15% even as Greenland melt rapidly intensified.
These changes, by 2012-2013 appeared to be, with increasing frequency, delivering severe weather to Europe. During this time, the region suffered one of its most severe Winter-Spring periods on record. And with the English storms, the Italian floods and the Balkan snows, 2013-2014 looks like a disastrous repeat.
Unfortunately, we are likely just at the start of a period of increasingly severe weather. Greenland melt will continue to ramp up, the Gulf Stream will continue to weaken, the Jet Stream will undergo radical change as the center of cold weakens and bounces around the Northern Hemisphere, trying to find a home. And human caused global warming will continue to add heat energy, increased rates of evaporation, and instability to the equation. So we are in the period where the storms grow worse and worse over time. And this is a fact we had better get used to. Something we had better prepare for and do our best to mitigate. For it is not something a comfortable denial can simply wish away.