Risk of winter floods, warn experts


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The Independent Online

The soggy aftermath of Britain's record-breaking wet summer could increase the risk of winter floods, say experts.

Months of monsoon-like weather has left the ground unusually waterlogged for the time of year.

Under the present conditions, a spell of heavy rain might be enough to cause further deluges like those which swamped many homes and businesses this summer.

Despite the winter drought, November to April is traditionally the wettest time of year, when soils around most of the country are close to saturation.

Sarah Jackson, chief adviser to the Government at the Met Office, told journalists: "We are coming into a period which is traditionally the wetter period.

"Because the ground is so wet, if we do have any prolonged heavy rainfall in any part of the country, there is going to be heightened risk.

"We would encourage people to keep an eye on the Met Office severe weather warnings, to sign up for the Environment Agency's flood warning service, and to make themselves aware of what to do."

Paul Mustow, head of flood incidence management at the Environment Agency, said the winter risk of flooding was "relatively heightened" but he did not expect to see "extreme flood events".

He pointed out the difference between "intense" summer downpours and the longer more drizzly spells of rain seen in winter. However, he added: "We would encourage people to think ahead."

An unprecedented turnaround resulted in the driest March on record giving way to the highest level of April to July rainfall seen in England and Wales since 1766.

Despite the Environment Agency issuing more than 100,000 warnings to help people prepare for the worst, hundreds of homes and businesses around the country were flooded.

Five million properties in England and Wales are considered to be at risk of flooding.

Mr Mustow said: "The Environment Agency and Met Office are constantly working to improve their flood forecasting and early-warning systems, and we are improving flood defences to protect communities. However, the most important step people can take in protecting themselves from the worst impacts of flooding is to find out if they are at risk and sign up to the Environment Agency's free flood warnings service.

"As winter approaches we'd encourage everyone to take this one step to help protect themselves from what is recognised as one of the country's major natural hazards."

Ms Jackson said there was no evidence of a climate change trend in the two dry winters the UK had just experienced, but heavy summer rain might reflect a "hint" of global warming. Warmer air trapped larger amounts of moisture and led to more intense rainfall.

"There is some hint but we certainly can't say categorically that the rainfall we've seen this summer is a consequence of climate change," she said. "That's very much the subject of research."

It was possible that a see-saw climate effect called the North Atlantic Oscillation might have entered a negative phase, said Ms Jackson. This would increase the frequency of cold, dry winters, and could also make summers wetter.