Extreme droughts to be 'more common'

Michael McCarthy,Environment Editor
Thursday 27 May 2010 00:00 BST

Britain is heading for water shortages and crop failures as extreme droughts like that of 1976 become more frequent, experts have warned.

A Met Office study on how climate change could affect the frequency of extreme droughts in the UK has found they will become more common by 2100, and to put the droughts in context, conditions seen in 1976 were used as a benchmark – one of the worst droughts on record.

The Met Office climate model was used to run a number of simulations and in the worst case scenarios, extreme droughts could happen once every decade – making them about 10 times more frequent than today.

Eleanor Burke, climate extremes scientist with the Met Office, said understanding how droughts will affect the UK in the future is vital for plans to adapt to climate change.

She said: "Severe droughts such as the one seen in 1976 have a big impact – causing water shortages, health risks, fire hazards, crop failure and subsidence. Understanding how the frequency of these events will change is therefore very important to planning for the future."

Further research will be aimed at assessing how likely each of the climate model's results is, to give better guidance for people to plan for the consequences of climate change.

While it culminated in the summer of 1976, the drought was actually an 18-month period of below average rainfall starting in May 1975. Only half the normal rainfall fell between June and August in 1976.

Temperatures were 4C above average between June and August across much of southern England, and the bone dry conditions proved a major hazard, with fires breaking out daily. In Surrey, the fire service answered 11,000 calls in five months.

An estimated £500m was lost through crop failure. Dry ground resulted in a surge in subsidence claims on property, with costs amounting to around £60m. A Drought Act was passed and there was widespread water rationing – some rivers, such as the Don and Sheaf in Sheffield, almost dried up.

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