Brace yourself for more than a storm in a British teacup

Torrential rain has struck again, this time across the heart of England, with inshore lifeboats launched and chaos on the roads and railways. But the sodden summer of 2007 is no blip on the chart – flooding is predicted to increase tenfold in the years ahead
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The Independent Online

Air-sea rescue helicopters scrambled to save people in land-locked Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, 16 severe flood warnings in force, rising rivers threatening the Thames Valley, rail services suspended in the Midlands, the M50 closed, four A roads paralysed, thousands spending the night in emergency centres ... the summer of 2007 continues. Russia doesn't get this much disruption most winters.

With up to three times the monthly July rain coming in 24 hours in some places, the impact was so bad that rescue operations in Worcestershire needed the assistance of lifeboat crews. And in the Gloucester, Evesham and Tewkesbury areas, more than 100 people were rescued from floodwaters by helicopter.

Although the worst of the deluges weakened as they passed northwards, the backwash from Friday's downfalls was causing many problems yesterday in the western heart of England. In Gloucestershire, around 2,000 people spent the night in emergency shelters. Rest centres were set up in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, Chipping Campden and Moreton-in-Marsh.

In Worcestershire, a team of 10 men and four inshore lifeboats began at 3.15am yesterday, helping in operations in Droitwich, Kidderminster, Wick, Pershore and Hawford, where many people were trapped on top of their caravans. Several elderly people were rescued from houses. Here was where Friday's most torrential downpours had fallen, Pershore getting 145.4mm of rain in 25 hours – nearly three times the July average – with Brize Norton in Oxfordshire running it a close second with 127mm.

Those travelling on the M5 had a difficult time. Late on Friday night, police shut the motorway between junction 11 for Cheltenham up to junction 8 north of Tewkesbury. Hundreds of drivers were stranded overnight and, although traffic began moving again yesterday morning, huge queues quickly built up. According to radio reports, a pregnant woman had her baby delivered by a midwife stuck in the same jam.

The Highways Agency was having a hard job reuniting cars abandoned in the night on the hard shoulder with their missing drivers. And, on the M50 in Herefordshire, flooding was so severe at junction 2 near Ledbury that the road was closed in both directions.

Trains were also disrupted. On Friday night, passengers were taken off trains at Oxford and Banbury and many had to sleep at Cherwell School in north Oxford. Yesterday, many services out of Birmingham, Oxford, Reading, Swindon and Gloucester were still suspended.

Emergency services struggled to cope. West Mercia Police received around 1,500 emergency calls in 24 hours, compared with an average of 900, and Hereford and Worcestershire Fire and Rescue Service said it had received over 1,000 calls for help in the past 24 hours – an "unprecedented" 10 per cent of the figure received annually. It carried out around 300 rescues from homes and caravan parks. Ominously, a spokesman said that water levels are still rising – hence the flood warnings still in force for parts of Worcester, plus the rivers Severn, Teme, Avon and Arrow

The present difficulties follow a run of outlandishly fine summers. Less than a month ago – on 25 June, when a month's rain fell in just 24 hours – the Environment Agency described the intensity of the deluge as "unprecedented". But Friday's cloudbursts – dumping three times the average total for July in just a few hours – were even more extraordinary.

The twin torrents sharply substantiate an inconvenient truth – that monsoon-like downpours are becoming ever more common in Britain as global warming takes hold. Newcastle University research has found that rainstorms have become twice as intense since the 1960s, and that the most severe ones happen four times more frequently.

Some parts of Britain, the research shows, now regularly receive almost a foot of rainfall over just 10 days – the sort of drenching experienced in the Indian monsoon. The east of Scotland is worst hit; but the whole of Scotland and north-west England have been having at least one ferocious deluge a year. The Environment Agency says days with heavy rainfall will become three to four times more common over the next decades, increasing flooding tenfold.

Three factors lead to more storms as the world warms up. As it gets hotter, more energy is injected into the climate. There is also a greater contrast between the land and the sea (which heats up more slowly), producing stronger winds and greater instability. And more water evaporates from warmer seas – to come down as heavier rainfall.

While Britain has been having a sodden summer, southern Europe has been baking in a heatwave. Both extremes have the same cause – a southwards shift of the jetstream, the five-mile-high, meandering river of air that determines much of our weather. This has moved the high pressure that settles over the Azores in summer, and caused the storms that would normally bypass us. The same change in the jetstream – which scientists suspect is connected to global warming – has produced the present heatwave in central and south-eastern Europe. In Romania, where temperatures reached 104 degrees on Friday, nine people have died since Monday, while Austria has seen three die in 95 degree heat. In Hungary the mercury has reached 107.4, and there have been more than 100 forest fires in Greece.

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