Severe winter flooding in Britain could become twice as likely by the end of the century because rising global temperatures are increasing the chances of huge “atmospheric rivers” that transport massive volumes of water vapour in the air.
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The sort of flooding that devastated Cumbria and parts of southern Scotland in November 2009, when more than a foot of rain fell in less than three days, is set to increase dramatically in the coming decades, scientists have predicted.
Warmer air is able to hold more water vapour which under certain weather conditions can form vast plumes or “rivers” in the atmosphere that can result in continual, heavy downpours over one spot of high ground, the scientists said.
The phenomenon, known as an atmospheric river, is one of the most common causes of flooding in Britain, especially during winter months when the ground is already saturated and there is little evaporation, said David Lavers of the University of Iowa.
The 2009 flood in Cumbria, which cut Workington in half, killed a police officer when a road bridge collapsed and flooded the town of Cockermouth under two feet of water, was the result of an atmospheric river carrying a volume of water equivalent to 4,500 times the average flow of the River Thames, Dr Lavers said.
A study has found that atmospheric rivers over Britain will become more frequent and intense as global temperatures rise this century in response to increasing concentrations of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, he said.
“Atmospheric rivers could become stronger in terms of their moisture transport. In a warming world, atmospheric water vapour content is expected to rise … with air temperature. This is likely to result in increased water vapour transport,” Dr Lavers said.
“The link between atmospheric rivers and flooding is already well established, so an increase in the frequency of atmospheric rivers is likely to lead to an increased number of heavy winter rainfall events and flood,” he said.
“More intense atmospheric rivers are likely to lead to higher rainfall totals, and thus larger flood events,” said Dr Lavers, the lead author of the study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, with his colleagues at the University of Reading.
The scientists analysed the frequency and intensity of atmospheric rivers using five different computer simulations of future climate scenarios, each based on different predictions of future carbon dioxide emissions.
“There were two things that came out of this. One was that the amount of water vapour transported by atmospheric rivers is likely to increase, and the other was that the more extreme atmospheric rivers look likely to become more frequent,” Dr Lavers said.
In the worst-case scenario, where nothing is done to curb carbon dioxide emissions, the number of extreme atmospheric rivers carrying the biggest overall volumes of water doubled in frequency over Britain, he said.
“These things are persistent in space and time and the one that caused the 2009 flooding in Cumbria sat over one point in the Lake District for a day or more,” Dr Lavers said.
Some areas of high ground in the Lake District received more than 400 millimetres (1.3 feet) of rainfall over 72 hours. Seathwaite in Cumbria recorded 316mm of rainfall in less than 24 hours, as a south-westerly airstream from the Atlantic brought exceptional “conveyor belt” rain to the region.
Atmospheric rivers have been linked with some of the worst flooding in recent times, such as the floods in Britain of last summer and winter which are estimated to have caused some £1bn worth of damage
Although these rivers in the air are relatively narrow bands of intense water vapour, about 300km (186 miles) wide, they can extend for thousands of kilometres in length, sometimes reaching across almost the entire length of the North Atlantic.
At their densest points, these atmospheric rivers can carry water vapour at a rate of more than 1,250 kilograms per metre per second – several thousand times the flow of the largest terrestrial rivers – but at a height of about 1km above ground.
Dr Lavers said that the warming of the atmosphere due to increased emissions of carbon dioxide from industrial sources increase the chances of bigger atmospheric rivers because of the simple thermodynamic fact that warmer air can carry more water vapour.
“Our analysis demonstrates that under current change scenarios, the strongest atmospheric rivers are projected to become more intense and, for any given intensity threshold, more frequent, indicating an intensification of precipitation extremes,” the study concludes.
As a result, flooding in parts of Britain during winter months will become more frequent and more intense compared to the past few decades.
Dr Lavers said that the findings could be used by the Environment Agency to make more accurate assessments of the future flood risks to parts of the UK.