Category Archives: Climate Change

‘So much for global warming…’

Since notably cold weather struck at the end of February I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this phrase uttered by the public and some sections of the press.

Top 20 cold
Top 20 cold anomalies

The ‘Beast from the East’ (versions 1.0 and 2.0) really captured the imagination in an age where everything has to have a label slapped on it; any message that these cold spells are ‘weather’ and not ‘climate’ seems to get lost.

Both spells, indeed the general pattern of our late winter weather, were driven by the stratospheric sudden warming event that lead to a split polar vortex in February – leading to a very cold end to the month and a mean temperature anomaly of -2.5C, the greatest monthly anomaly since March 2013.

To put it into perspective, however, it was nothing like some of the anomalies that occurred in the early 19th century: January 1814, for example, saw a monthly anomaly of -8.2C and coincided with the last occasion a frost fair was held on the Thames. Januaries back then were generally very cold, the 1801-1831 average monthly mean was -3C, that’s 8C colder than the most recent 1981-2010 average!

So climate now is much warmer but that is not to say that anomalously cold months can’t happen. February 1986 saw an anomaly of -5.6C, the 13th= greatest cold anomaly in my local dataset going back to 1797.

top 20 warm
Top 20 warm anomalies

The cold December of 2010 recorded an anomaly of -4.2C, 76th= greatest cold anomaly, while anomalies of -4.1C recorded in January 1979 and March 2013 were 77th=.

With the warming climate it is no surprise that most warm months happened very recently. The balmy month of December 2015  saw a positive anomaly of 5.4C.

The ‘Beast from the East 2.0’ was caused by a narrow tongue of extremely cold air from Russia scoring a direct hit on the UK. The odds of this happening must have been low but it is an example of how, when the synoptics of the atmosphere line up perfectly, anything is possible.

And it is an example how even in a warming climate the UK can still be subject to anomalous cold and warmth at any time of the year.

As the author Mark Twain reportedly once said: “The climate is what you expect; the weather is what you get.”

gfs
The upper air anomaly of the ‘Beast from the East 2.0’. 
anom
This graphic shows positive and negative monthly anomalies since 1797 against a generally warming climate

Because the above graphic is crowded I created one of anomalies since 1970. The upward trend is the same.

1970

march 1st

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June weather can be flaming horror show

The past week has produced the highest 24-hour rainfall total recorded in Wanstead since at least 1960. The multi-cell thunderstorm on Wednesday night saw 60.8mm fall, most of it in two hours, bringing flash floods to the surrounding area. The spectacular lightning and thunder that accompanied it was almost a side show such was the intensity of the rainfall.

rainradar
An image from the Home & Dry app revealed a succession of dark red echoes passing over our area. The heaviest rain seemed to run on a line from Battersea to Romford

I was unfortunate enough to be riding home right in the middle of the event: the entire length of the Mile End Road bore a resemblance to a shallow river, the heavy rainfall bouncing back off the Tarmac high enough to create what felt like a powerful drench shower.

The legacy of the downpours caused chaos in the morning and evening rush-hours. Many commuters were stranded at London terminals including Waterloo station because of flooded tracks, possibly robbing many of the chance of voting in the EU referendum. It will never be known if this would have had a bearing on the final result.

Many people think of June as a warm, summery month. The term Flaming June  is regarded in most peoples’ subconscious as a reference to past weather. That it is a actually the name of a painting is often missed. Looking back through our local history there has been many notable events of thunderstorms and prolonged rainfall. In 1903 a record-breaking 59-hour deluge left vast swaths of the borough inundated.

list
The offical UK weather station totals all recorded less than Wanstead

This weekend 200 years ago, during the Year Without a Summer, a powerful tornado, strong enough to carry away objects weighing 60lbs, tore through the Edgware Road area in west London. Luke Howard recorded the event in the Climate of London.

At two o’clock being a still sultry day a whirlwind passed over the nursery ground of Mr Henderson in the Edgware Road which lifted seven lights from the greenhouses and carried them to the height of the highest elm trees, each of the lights weighs 50 or 60lbs at least. At the same time two garden mats were carried to an immense height so that the eye could not distinguish them.

The following day “extremely heavy and prolonged rain from 9am (26th) to 9am on 27th gave 2.95 inches”. This total of over 52mm is notably high though not a record.

This weather was a continuation of what had been an awful May and June – cold with more than twice the average rainfall in June.

The weather then was not unlike what we have experienced this month. Indeed, a look at the weather throughout this year was similar as this graph shows.

compared

Though the mean temperature at times bears a close resemblance this year is no comparison to 1816: The mean then was running at 6.2C, over 3 degrees colder than today.
Mean pressure was also lower being 992.1mb; the 2016 mean 9am pressure is 1010.6mb.
Perhaps not surprisingly this year’s rainfall rainradaractually trumps 200 years ago; the running total for rainfall here is 390.1mm, higher than the 309.6mm recorded in 1816.

The dreary summer and frequent thunderstorms of 1816 inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. A summer vacation in Switzerland led her to spend much of the time indoors. She, along with Lord Byron and John William Polidori entertained each other with a contest to write the scariest story of all. The unseasonal conditions, along with this dare, led to the creation of Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus— as well as Polidori’s novella The Vampyre and Byron’s long-form poem, The Darkness.

It will be interesting to see if this June’s weather, along with momentous political changes here and in Europe, produce more fine fiction from the this and the next generation of writers.

wind
Wind speed during the event from 2300 to 1000
temp
Temperature during the event from 2300 to 1000
pressure
Pressure during the event from 2300 to 1000
raintoday
Rainfall from 2300 to 1000
tipper
Rainfall rate from 2300 to 1000

 

Another development on Thames floodplain

A new suburb the “size of Windsor” is being planned for Barking Riverside, the site of the old Barking Power station, according to a report in the Financial Times.

barking riverside
The Barking Riverside site is sandwiched between two sewage works and a power station

Some 10,800 homes are being planned for the 179-hectare site by the housing association London & Quadrant in association with the Greater London Authority. The report states that £70m will be invested in extending the London Overground rail line to the site. But no mention is made on how much will be invested in flood defences.

Nor does it say that the site is sandwiched between sewage works on either side of the river and a power station and the Ford Motor works to the east.

It is part of the Mayor of London’s ambition for a City in the East that also makes no mention of how much money will be invested in flood defences to make these new estates safe.

This 200,000 home masterplan for East London should be music to the ears of anyone struggling to find a place to live in our overcrowded capital.

But unless planners are willing to spend billions on new flood defences it is possible that these new homes will be particularly at risk of flooding should rainfall levels increase with climate change.

The Environment Agency's Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard's comment that "the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible"
The Environment Agency’s Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard’s comment that “the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible”

Many of the developments mooted in London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan for a City in the East are situated on flood plain, according to the Environment Agency.

On reading through the blueprint flood risk isn’t mentioned once.

A report in the Financial Times, citing the plan, says there is much more potential than previously thought to increase housebuilding in east London, the capital’s planning chief estimates. Sites earmarked include the Lea Valley and areas along the Thames beyond Canary Wharf.
‘Thames Riverside’, the term for an area along the north side of the Thames including Barking and Beckton, could host 27,000 homes, while areas on the opposite side of the river could hold 22,000, according to the report. There could be 52,000 more homes in Lea Valley, 30,000 on the Isle of Dogs and 15,000 in Woolwich.
Sir Edward Lister, deputy mayor for policy and planning, believes the capital’s authorities had learned from their experience with the Nine Elms regeneration area, where a statement of intent had galvanised developers.
“We just have to commit and then the developers can move in,” adding that there were “vast” amounts of underused post-industrial sites along the river in east London.
The housing plans also include commercial and industrial buildings, giving potential to create 280,000 jobs, as well as supporting infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Transport improvements, such as Crossrail and a new London Overground line, would make the developments ‘desirable’. But costs would be dwarfed by any flood defence improvements.
Previously the Environment Agency has outlined a range of options for the future of the Thames Estuary flood defences. None are particularly cheap.

As a minimum, the EA estimates that the cost of maintaining the defences until 2035 will be around £1.5 billion, with an additional £1.8 billion needed to repair and upgrade the defences until 2050. Particular bits of marshland could also be set aside to store tide waters.

The River Lea close to where Luke Howard's laboratory stood by wanstead_meteo
The River Lea close to where Luke Howard’s laboratory stood

More ambitiously, the government could fund a new barrier in either Tilbury in Essex or Long Reach in Kent. Such a barrier would be designed to resist the highest surge tides identified by the Met Office’s analysis of how conditions will change this century. The EA estimates a new barrier could cost as much as £7 billion, though that figure could go up if conditions change significantly as the climate changes.

The Agency also say the existing barrier could be converted to include locks, which could open and close more flexibly and extend the life of the defences. The EA report says a decision on a new barrier will have to be made by 2050.

It may turn out that there’s a more pressing reason to spend. The EA says 50 is the maximum number of times the barrier should close each year, and beyond that, the barrier could start to fail.

How high is the likelihood of flooding in this part of London? A look back through history shows the geography of the Lea Valley has made the area prone to inundations for hundreds of years.

The Environment Agency's Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard's account that the river Lea was 'a mile wide' at its peak
The Environment Agency’s Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard’s account that the river Lea was ‘a mile wide’ at its peak

In January 1809 the lower River Lea burst its banks in several places following a deluge that dumped two inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. The rain abruptly ended a snowy cold spell that had begun over a month before in the middle of December. From Luke Howard’sreadings it is likely that up to half a metre of snow had fallen in the previous weeks in the upper parts of the surrounding countryside with only slight thawing. With the frozen ground unable to absorb any of the rapidly melting snow and rainfall the amount of water flowing downstream must have been immense. Howard takes up the story…

“The River Lea continued rising the whole of the 26th… The various channels by which it intersects this part of the country were united in one current above a mile in width which flowed with great impetuosity and did much damage.”

Howard, his chemical factory located on the banks of the river Lea close to what is now Bow flyover, wrote at length about the event, his account replacing the usual brief notes about daily weather in his book The Climate of London.

He talks of embanked pasture land being “filled to the depth of eight or nine feet” and people driven to their upper rooms relieved by boats plying under the windows.

“The Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible.” It took until February 23rd for things to return to normal.

Wanstead Flats by Scott Whitehead
Wanstead Flats during the wet winter of 2013-14

Miraculously no lives were lost in the flood and cattle “by great exertions” were saved by being kept in their stalls. Howard, saying that the flood could have been far worse, believed a neap tide, strong westerly winds urging water down the Thames and mild weather helped avert a tragedy.

Howard’s statistics of the previous months show that the second half of 1808 were wetter than average – though not especially so. And nothing like the rainfall this area recorded during the winter of 2013/14. From December 1st until February 8th 1809 Howard recorded 130mm of rain, which is about 100mm less than what was recorded during 2013/14.

This fact alone shows just how much the nature of the river has changed in the last 200-odd years thanks to spending on flood defences.

Work to improve the defences was prompted 67 years ago when similar catastrophic flooding came with the thaw that ended the severe winter of 1947, one of the coldest winters in history and an episode remarkably similar to what Howard recorded in 1809.

The Lea Valley, along with many parts of the country, saw some of its worst flooding in a generation. The river burst its banks at several points bringing misery to surrounding communities. Valleys turned into lakes in 40 counties and East Anglia’s fens were a sandbagged inland sea. More than 100,000 properties were damaged and, then as now, heroic battles were fought by the military to keep water-pumping plants and power stations dry.

A marker of that flood, together with a history of flood defences, can be found here. There is also British Pathe footage of another flood between 1910 and 1919 here .

mill
Spillers Millennium Mill was repainted 25 years ago especially for the concert. It now provides the backdrop for the London Triathlon across from the ExCeL centre

The River Lea Flood Relief Channel, that flows between Ware, Herts, and Stratford, took almost three decades to complete. The channel incorporates existing watercourses, lakes and new channels. Since it was completed in 1976, there have been no major flood events in the Lea Valley, although there have been three occasions when the river system was full virtually to its capacity: in 1987, 1993 and 2000. Since its completion, the level of protection afforded by the structure has declined, so that in some areas it offers 2 per cent protection, and in some, only 5 per cent protection. The EA published a strategic environmental assessment in 2008, which looked at ways to maintain the flood defences in the Lea Valley.

In summing up its ambitions for a new development the Greater London Authority says it is trying to “overturn the historic perception of the east being seen as apart from London, rather than as a part of London”.

Jim Ward, a director of research at property consultancy Savills, said the challenge was “building something that makes people want to live and work there”, he said. “You need to build more than homes, you need to build a place.”

Boris’s record of late has not been good: an estuary airport to replace Heathrow has been dismissed as pie in the sky while his promise for a 24-hour Tube was made without first consulting unions that it was possible.

London’s safety from flooding is an altogether different proposition, both for old and new developments. Boris really needs to get London’s flood defences right before any brick is laid on these desperately-needed new developments.

Greenwich Peninsula awash with development

The race to build more riverside property on London’s floodplain has received another boost after a big development on the Greenwich Peninsula was given the green light.

The Environment Agency's Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard's comment that "the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible"
The Environment Agency’s Flood Plan map of the Thames

The Financial Times reported on Friday that Boris Johnson has given final approval to an £8.4bn, 12,700-home development that would transform this area of south-east London into a “high-rise urban village complete with film studio”.

Knight Dragon have already begun construction on the project, a 150-acre scheme approved 10 years ago in a more modest form but revived and expanded after the financial crisis.

The report mentions that local residents are concerned the scheme will place unbearable strain on the area’s transport links and that the size and density is out of keeping with Greenwich’s World Heritage Site of 17th to 19th-century buildings close by.

What is not mentioned is flood risk – a factor that, considering climate models, is deemed too minuscule to worry about. The proposed development satisfies this risk criteria – a report on the ‘Strategic Flood Risk Assessment’, drawn up in October 2011, mentions:

“Tidal flood risk is extensive, but at present Greenwich is fully defended against the 0.1% annual probability extreme tide level with climate change to 2107. A breach in the defences, although a low probability of occurrence, would have a high consequence, causing significant flooding of the Thamesmead, New Charlton and Greenwich Peninsula areas of the Borough.”

But is it wise to build on historic floodplain? Surely we should be looking elsewhere in London for safer sites for projects that will help ease the housing crisis.

The website floodlondon.com shares concern that developments such as these are at severe risk from a tidal surge when the Thames Flood Barrier nears the end of its working life in the middle of this century.

“Perched on the very tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, the O2 Arena finds itself ideally located on a nice sharp bend in the river where it is likely to take the full brunt of the surge as it careers into the bank, much like a racing car taking a corner too fast. The North Greenwich tube station just across the road will prove to be a great asset at this point as it funnels the water into the Jubilee Line.”

Before the Thames Barrier was built this part of the river has seen some catastrophic flooding.

thames flood november 18 1875
The 1875 flood as reported in the Morning Post
In November 1875, a year that was only slightly wetter than normal, a record high tide of 8.9m was recorded at Blackwall. The figure is 1.36m (4ft 6in) higher than the greatest high tide at North Woolwich (Silvertown) this year, according to tide tables drawn up by the Port of London Authority (7.54m on March 20th).
The flood brought chaos throughout London – with this part of the river particularly badly hit. Much of the Isle of Dogs was inundated, North Woolwich Gardens were under 3ft (1m) of water while the water caused explosions at the Royal Arsenal. Elsewhere in the capital Eton College was ‘completely surrounded by water’. A correspondent for the Press Association said the damage caused on the banks of the Thames was estimated to cost £1m sterling – just over £103m at today’s prices.
tues 16 nov
The Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette on Tuesday, November 16, 1875 reported a depth of water at East India Docks of 29ft 2in. Damage was estimated to be £1m sterling – just over £103m at today’s prices.

Since the flood of 1953 measures, including the Thames Barrier, were put in place to stop this flooding. The Environment Agency has outlined a range of options for the future of the Thames Estuary flood defences. None are particularly cheap. As a minimum, the EA estimates that the cost of maintaining the defences until 2035 will be around £1.5 billion, with an additional £1.8 billion needed to repair and upgrade the defences until 2050. Particular bits of marshland could also be set aside to store tide waters.

The EA estimates a new barrier could cost as much as £7 billion, though that figure could go up if conditions change significantly as the climate changes.

Greenwich Peninsula and another project, City in the East, which was announced last month will need proper flood protection and planning. I wonder if planners are as willing to invest in these defences as they are at making a tidy buck developing these riverside schemes. And do our politicians have the appetite to drive the legislation through?

The problem is that if the climate change does bring greater rainfall and an unprecedented sea-level rise it is the people living in these properties that will be faced with the problem of ever-increasing costs to fight off the risk of inundation.

 

Will potent El Niño bring cold winter?

Much of the UK media has been very persistent in the past few months in saying that large positive anomaly El Niño years herald cold winters – basing their assumption on one year: 2009/10.coldandwarmepisodesbyseason

Whilst that winter was very cold, among the top 10 coldest of the last 70 years in this area, another El Niño year, 1997/98 – the strongest in recent history – brought London its third-warmest winter in a record going back to 1797.

When I had a look at ENSO data going back to 1950 a few months ago I found it impossible to find a definitive teleconnection between El Niño and winters in north-west Europe. However, now that we are midway through November, and with a fair impression of how the monthly mean will finish, I had another look.

NOAA data shows that the most similar El Niño years to this are: 1957, 1965, 1972, 1982, 1997, 2002. Taking in to account only mean temperature shows that November values have increased.

new el nino

What does this mean for this winter? It is still impossible to tell and is just another variable to consider when the time comes to predict winter.

CET v Greenwich values since 1850

The climate of London can vary greatly to figures revealed in the Central England Temperature series. Because this dataset covers an area of the UK enclosed by Lancashire, London and Bristol the resulting monthly mean temperature can often be quite a bit lower than what is experienced in the capital.

Though these anomalies are smoothed in the monthly series that stretches back to 1659 notable daily extremes that happen nationwide tend to get lost. One example was earlier this month when the UK’s November maximum temperature record was broken. Trawsgoed in Wales reached 22.4C on the afternoon of the 1st whereas a largely foggy east London recorded just 11.5C.

Comparing CET with data from Greenwich back to 1850 reveals a gradual decoupling between the two series, the warmth of London’s urban heat island effect an ever-growing influence.

CETvGreenwich

The 1851-1880 30-year average means show that Greenwich was 0.6C warmer than the CET series. By 1981-2010 this gap had widened to 1.2C – indeed the London series is today 1.4C warmer than it was in 1851-80 whereas CET has warmed by only 0.6C.

Delving further into the data reveals an increase in the number of times that the 30-year average mean is being breached by at least 1.1C. The period 1961-90 was the warmest in both cases with the mean being breached by 1.1C or more on four occasions in the case of CET and five in London. It is interesting to note, however, that the largest anomaly in the CET series is 1.3C in 1921, greater, albeit by only 0.1C, than the warm years of 1990 and 1999.

The largest anomaly in London, 1.6C, was set in 2011, 0.1C higher than 1999, 1997 and 1989.years exceeding relevant 30-year average annual temperature by 1.1C

The graph below shows the number of occasions that the 30-year average has been exceeded in each period by 1.1C or more. With 1961-90 being so warm it appears that CET warming has slowed though it should be borne in mind that we have another five years before the 1991-20 series can be released.

numberof years that exceeded 30-year average annual mean CET by 1.1C

With reference to the London graph below showing the number of occasions that the 30-year average has been exceeded in each period by 1.1C or more merely confirms that the level of the anomalies have increased but, as already mentioned, there are probably far more outside influences affecting the outcome such as UHI, population growth, further industrialisation etc.

The accelerated warming is a worry in terms of how London would adapt should summer temperatures greatly increase, though, of course, it remains to be seen if the anomalies will advance even further from current levels.

Global temperatures are on the rise though our part of the globe may not be as adversely affected as elsewhere.Size of margin when years exceeded 30-year average annual mean temp by at least 1.1C at Greenwich* The CET dataset is the longest instrumental record of temperature in the world. The mean, minimum and maximum datasets are updated monthly, with data for a month usually available by the 3rd of the next month. A provisional CET value for the current month is calculated on a daily basis. The mean daily data series begins in 1772 and the mean monthly data in 1659. Mean maximum and minimum daily and monthly data are also available, beginning in 1878.

For more information on CET follow this link.

Flood risk sandbags City in the East plan

Plans to build 200,000 homes in East London over the next 20 years should be music to the ears of anyone struggling to find a place to live in our overcrowded capital.

But unless planners are willing to spend billions on new flood defences it is possible that these new homes will be particularly at risk of flooding should rainfall levels increase with climate change.

The Environment Agency's Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard's comment that
The Environment Agency’s Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates how much of the land that is designated for development is at risk of flooding

Many of the developments mooted in London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan for a City in the East are situated on flood plain, according to the Environment Agency.

On reading through the blueprint flood risk isn’t mentioned once.

A report in the Financial Times, citing the new plan, says there is much more potential than previously thought to increase housebuilding in east London, the capital’s planning chief estimates. Sites earmarked include the Lea Valley and areas along the Thames beyond Canary Wharf.
‘Thames Riverside’, the term for an area along the north side of the Thames including Barking and Beckton, could host 27,000 homes, while areas on the opposite side of the river could hold 22,000, according to the report. There could be 52,000 more homes in Lea Valley, 30,000 on the Isle of Dogs and 15,000 in Woolwich.
Sir Edward Lister, deputy mayor for policy and planning, believes the capital’s authorities had learned from their experience with the Nine Elms regeneration area, where a statement of intent had galvanised developers.
“We just have to commit and then the developers can move in,” adding that there were “vast” amounts of underused post-industrial sites along the river in east London.
The housing plans also include commercial and industrial buildings, giving potential to create 280,000 jobs, as well as supporting infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Transport improvements, such as Crossrail and a new London Overground line, would make the developments ‘desirable’. But costs would be dwarfed by any flood defence improvements.
Previously the Environment Agency has outlined a range of options for the future of the Thames Estuary flood defences. None are particularly cheap.

As a minimum, the EA estimates that the cost of maintaining the defences until 2035 will be around £1.5 billion, with an additional £1.8 billion needed to repair and upgrade the defences until 2050. Particular bits of marshland could also be set aside to store tide waters.

The River Lea close to where Luke Howard's laboratory stood by wanstead_meteo
The River Lea close to where Luke Howard’s laboratory stood. Since it was completed in 1976, there have been no major flood events in the Lea Valley, although there have been three occasions when the river system was full virtually to its capacity: in 1987, 1993 and 2000.

More ambitiously, the government could fund a new barrier in either Tilbury in Essex or Long Reach in Kent. Such a barrier would be designed to resist the highest surge tides identified by the Met Office’s analysis of how conditions will change this century. The EA estimates a new barrier could cost as much as £7 billion, though that figure could go up if conditions change significantly as the climate changes.

The Agency also say the existing barrier could be converted to include locks, which could open and close more flexibly and extend the life of the defences. The EA report says a decision on a new barrier will have to be made by 2050.

It may turn out that there’s a more pressing reason to spend. The EA says 50 is the maximum number of times the barrier should close each year, and beyond that, the barrier could start to fail.

How high is the likelihood of flooding in this part of London? A look back through history shows the geography of the Lea Valley has made the area prone to inundations for hundreds of years.

The Environment Agency's Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard's account that the river Lea was 'a mile wide' at its peak
The Environment Agency’s Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard’s account that the river Lea was ‘a mile wide’ at its peak

In January 1809 the lower River Lea burst its banks in several places following a deluge that dumped two inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. The rain abruptly ended a snowy cold spell that had begun over a month before in the middle of December. From Luke Howard’s readings it is likely that up to half a metre of snow had fallen in the previous weeks in the upper parts of the surrounding countryside with only slight thawing. With the frozen ground unable to absorb any of the rapidly melting snow and rainfall the amount of water flowing downstream must have been immense. Howard takes up the story…

“The River Lea continued rising the whole of the 26th… The various channels by which it intersects this part of the country were united in one current above a mile in width which flowed with great impetuosity and did much damage.”

Howard, his chemical factory located on the banks of the river Lea close to what is now Bow flyover, wrote at length about the event, his account replacing the usual brief notes about daily weather in his book The Climate of London.

He talks of embanked pasture land being “filled to the depth of eight or nine feet” and people driven to their upper rooms relieved by boats plying under the windows.

“The Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible.” It took until February 23rd for things to return to normal.

Wanstead Flats by Scott Whitehead
Wanstead Flats: another area of east London that is traditionally flood plain

Miraculously no lives were lost in the flood and cattle “by great exertions” were saved by being kept in their stalls. Howard, saying that the flood could have been far worse, believed a neap tide, strong westerly winds urging water down the Thames and mild weather helped avert a tragedy.

Howard’s statistics of the previous months show that the second half of 1808 were wetter than average – though not especially so. And nothing like the rainfall this area recorded during the winter of 2013/14. From December 1st until February 8th 1809 Howard recorded 130mm of rain, which is about 100mm less than what was recorded during 2013/14.

This fact alone shows just how much the nature of the river has changed in the last 200-odd years thanks to spending on flood defences.

Work to improve the defences was prompted 67 years ago when similar catastrophic flooding came with the thaw that ended the severe winter of 1947, one of the coldest winters in history and an episode remarkably similar to what Howard recorded in 1809.

The Lea Valley, along with many parts of the country, saw some of its worst flooding in a generation. The river burst its banks at several points bringing misery to surrounding communities. Valleys turned into lakes in 40 counties and East Anglia’s fens were a sandbagged inland sea. More than 100,000 properties were damaged and, then as now, heroic battles were fought by the military to keep water-pumping plants and power stations dry.

A marker of that flood, together with a history of flood defences, can be found here. There is also British Pathe footage of another flood between 1910 and 1919 here .

Spillers Millennium Mill was repainted 25 years ago especially for the concert. It now provides the backdrop for the London Triathlon across from the ExCeL centre
The iconic Spillers’ Millennium Mills building has been redeveloped

The River Lea Flood Relief Channel, that flows between Ware, Herts, and Stratford, took almost three decades to complete. The channel incorporates existing watercourses, lakes and new channels. Since it was completed in 1976, there have been no major flood events in the Lea Valley, although there have been three occasions when the river system was full virtually to its capacity: in 1987, 1993 and 2000. Since its completion, the level of protection afforded by the structure has declined, so that in some areas it offers 2 per cent protection, and in some, only 5 per cent protection. The EA published a strategic environmental assessment in 2008, which looked at ways to maintain the flood defences in the Lea Valley.

In summing up its ambitions for a new development the Greater London Authority says it is trying to “overturn the historic perception of the east being seen as apart from London, rather than as a part of London”.

Jim Ward, a director of research at property consultancy Savills, said the challenge was “building something that makes people want to live and work there”, he said. “You need to build more than homes, you need to build a place.”

Boris’s record of late has not been good: an estuary airport to replace Heathrow has been dismissed as pie in the sky while his promise for a 24-hour Tube was made without first consulting unions that it was possible.

London’s safety from flooding is an altogether different proposition, both for old and new developments. Boris really needs to get London’s flood defences right before any brick is laid on these desperately-needed new developments.

Climate change: Forever a pressing issue

Every so often the UK experiences severe weather which shocks a population that is very used to our mostly benign climate.

Newspapers and media agencies, in an age where a culprit must be found to blame, are quick to connect every gale, flood and snowstorm with climate change. To say it is just ‘weather’ doesn’t compute with the average news editor.

falkirk herald
The year 1868 saw months of extreme weather that led newspapers on a mild and rain-sodden Christmas Eve to first ask the question: ‘Is our climate changing?’

A look back through archives from the 19th century reveal that this is not a new phenomenon. Though extreme weather events, including the heatwave of 1808 and widespread floods of 1811 and 1828, were always well documented, it wasn’t until the advent of reliable meteorological readings in the mid 1800s that scientists could analyse what was happening to the atmosphere with any authority. This, coupled with an explosion in literacy rates and the British fascination with the weather, helped build an appetite for news stories that went beyond covering each gale, flood and blizzard.

The year 1868 saw months of extreme weather that led newspapers on a mild and rain-sodden Christmas Eve to first ask the question: ‘Is our climate changing?’ The year had been the warmest for 34 years. The CET mean for 1868 was 10.4C, a figure nearly 1.3C above the 1831-1860 average. To put that into perspective 2014 was only 1C above the 1981-2010 average.

A review of weather in 1868 in the Falkirk Herald said the year had started very wet – a farming diary kept in Connaught, Co Mayo, said that January was so wet it was impossible to plough the land. The very wet weather lasted until the last week of March. In the Armagh record, all three months had well-above average rainfall, with the three-month total of 363 mm representing around 180 per cent of the long-term average.

By contrast the summer of 1868 was very hot and dry, with some of the highest temperatures ever recorded for the second half of July occurring in this year. There was a remarkable spell of hot days, with temperatures over 30C in England. For the south-east specifically, a maximum temperature above 32C was recorded in each of the months from May to September, and in July, the temperature exceeded 32C on 9 days. It was regarded for many years, until 1976 at least, as the longest (because of a lack of rainfall) and hottest in the instrumental record for England.

Although not accepted under modern methods, because of problems of comparison between Glaisher stands and Stevenson screens, the maximum temperature recorded on July 22nd, 1868 at Tonbridge, Kent, is still remarkable: 100.6F (38.1C). It is thought that this value, when compared with a standard Stevenson screen, is about 1.5C or 2C too high.

The subsequent ‘standard’ winter (December, January and February) became the warmest winter in the CET series which began in 1659, a record that still stands today.

The mild temperatures suggest a highly zonal, westerly pattern held sway from late November 1868 until at least February 1869. Snow was scarce in 1868 – with the only heavy falls on March 3rd and 8th and November restricted to northern England and Scotland.

Gilbert White, in his journal Natural History of Selbourne, tells of a visit to London in January 1776 when the metropolis was completely embedded in snow. He says that snow remained on houses in the City for 26 days - these days we're lucky if we see snow fall at all in the centre
Gilbert White, in his journal Natural History of Selbourne, tells of a visit to London in January 1776 when the metropolis was completely embedded in snow. He says that snow remained on houses in the City for 26 days – these days it is unusual for any snow to fall in the centre

The Falkirk Herald  goes on to point out that winters, for the past 25 years, were mostly mild and wet – any bitter spells were short-lived. The piece cites Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne which tells of a scene in January 1776 when “narrow roads were filled with snow to the tops of the hedges”, stopping road wagons and coaches in their tracks. White, regarded as England’s first ecologist, remarks that on a visit to London on the 22nd the metropolis was completely embedded in snow. A frost on the 27th lasted four days and was so intense that the Thames froze sufficiently enough for crowds to run about on the ice. More tellingly the snow remained on houses in the City for 26 days – these days we’re lucky if we see snow fall at all in the centre.

The paper professes that an increased occurrence of gales in mild winters were preferable to the ‘wave of death’ that accompanies bitter winters:

To the strong and hearty the frosts and snows of a bitter winter may seem genial and invigorating ; but they bring death with them to the weak, the ailing, and the aged.

It had been nine years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and many people were starting to turn away from the popular theory that many weather disasters were the work of God.

top 10 warmest and coldest years
Nine out of ten of the warmest years have occurred since 1989

Less than 5 years later the question ‘Has our Climate Changed?’ was being asked again. An article in the Fife Herald on January 30th, 1873, reported that winters were milder and that summers were colder – less frost and snow and much more rain. The month had been mild, nearly 2C above the 1841-70 mean, but the rain was more notable: 80mm, 136% of the EWP average. The wet January was a continuation of the previous 12 months which had been the wettest on record: 1284.9mm, a record in the EWP series that remains to this day. There has been a wetter 12 month period just once – April 2000 to March 2001.

The wet conditions extended across Ireland too; in the Armagh record, the 12 months from February 1872 to January 1873 saw 1251 mm of rain fall, which represents about 150 per cent of the long term average for this station. A farming diary in Connaught, Co Mayo, stated that the persistent wet weather caused considerable distress through loss of harvests and difficulty of working the land.

By the time the question: “Is our climate changing?” was asked again, 16 years later, the climate had turned much colder with the return of snowy winters. Snow fell on 16 days in February 1889 – a storm on the 10th and 11th dumped 20-30cm of snow widely across England. Days later the Hull Daily Mail reported a statement by Professor Cleveland Abbe which said that the climate of the earth had not changed in 2,000 years.

The comments of Professor Abbe, today considered the father of the US National Weather Service, were drawn from a report in the US magazine, The Forum, and referred to temperature, rainfall, early and late frosts, freezing of rivers, periods of cold winters and hot summers, the opening of navigation and the temperature of the earth. He said:

The study of each and all of these phenomena has failed to establish that there has been any sensible change in the climate at any point of the earth’s surface during the past 2,000 years.

It is not clear if Professor Abbe’s words were taken out of context but it is interesting that such a well-respected scientist had the confidence to make such a statement.

Top 10 wettest and driest years
Rainfall shows a much more even spread of records through the years than temperature

The year 1888, part of a string of colder than average years that followed the huge Krakatoa volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1883, had seen other extreme events. In July ice is reported to have disrupted the fishing fleets around the Faroe Islands, implying cold conditions at these latitudes, probably extending to at least the Shetland Isles. It was a notably cold summer; a mean of 13.7C puts it just outside the ‘Top 10’ of coldest summers in the CET series. In London the summer was 1.8C cooler than average and rainfall was 139 per cent of normal for that period. It was also the dullest on record.

Two decades were to pass before the question: ‘Has our climate changed?’ appeared again following a fairly mild and wet winter. The Dundee Courier, on April 9th 1908, suggested that winters had grown milder but admitted there was no known cause. It said that the Thames had not frozen over for nearly 100 years but that this was partly caused by the fact that London Bridge was replaced 80 years previously, totally changing the tidal flow of the Thames.

Five months later a soggy Dublin Horse Show prompted the Wells Journal on September 10th to report on findings by the meteorologist Sir John Moore featured in the Geographic Section. He looked at Rev William Merle’s writings from the 14th century and observations made in Greenwich from 1774.

The facts prove that within the last six centuries at all events appreciable change has taken place in the climate of the British Isles. There is no scintilla of evidence to show that such change has taken place in the past or is likely to take place in the future.

On Boxing Day 1908 the Gloucestershire Echo cited an ancient weather report featured by Sir John Moore. In 1341 the month of April saw continuous frost from 6th to the 13th while the following autumn saw spring-like weather persist from September to December: “Our climate hasn’t changed in 600 years.” was the claim.

A poor summer in 1909 that began with the coldest June for over 230 years once again prompted the question ‘Is our climate changing?’ to be asked again by the Wells Journal on August 5th, 1909. The report says that the climate of Europe is growing colder – with periodic cold summers. It goes on to say that cold summers have happened in the past, mentioning the following years: 820 (cold and wet – most crops perish), 1033 and 1044 (cold and wet, caused famine), 1151 (rain falls in France continuously from end of June to middle of August), 1219, 1315, 1423 and 1512 (cold and wet summers) – in 1512 several people, accused of causing bad weather, were burned at the stake. Other years: 1596, 1639, 1641, 1667 – all had very cold Junes.  The years 1809, 1812, 1813, 1816 all had cold summers.

bonacinaAround the country there were some notable readings. On June 6th a high of just 10C was reached in Oxford and Bath. It was notably cold and wet with significant thunderstorms from 10th to the 12th and 20th to 28th. In London the Trooping the Colour ceremony on 24th was cancelled because of poor weather – one of only four occasions it has been cancelled due to weather since its inception in 1895. It was also a very dull month with no sunshine at all in London from June 2nd to 6th.

The year 1911 produced more remarkable weather and some violent thunderstorms. On May 31st, as the Titanic was being launched in an overcast Belfast, some 17 people were killed by lightning strikes across London and four horses died on Epsom downs on what was the day of the Derby. About 62mm of rain fell in 50 minutes on the Downs and there were 159 lightning strikes in 15 minutes around 5.30pm.

The summer season that year was the warmest for 65 years with many areas having less than half their normal rainfall. July was spectacularly sunny with an average of over 10 hours of bright sunshine over much of southern England: 384 hours of sunshine were recorded at Eastbourne and Hastings, East Sussex, during this month, and these are thought to be the highest sunshine totals recorded anywhere for July in the UK.

August 9th, 1911, saw the first incident of 100F (37.8C) being recorded in London. The record beat the previous high of 97F. The report also makes mention that many areas recorded at least 97F
August 9th, 1911, saw the first incident of 100F (37.8C) being recorded in London. The record beat the previous high of 97F. The report also makes mention that many areas recorded at least 97F

For the SE of England, with something like 300-350 hours of bright sunshine, this month (with July 2006) is regarded as the sunniest month on record. The month was also exceptionally dry and is still among the ‘Top 5’ dry Julys in the EWP series. August was also warm: the 9th produced the first occasion when 100°F was recorded in London.

During the autumn of 1911, the Shields Daily Gazette on Wednesday, October 25th, was reporting that ‘weather prophets’ were predicting that the UK was in for an exceptionally cold winter. The predictions were based purely on the fact that the country had not had a bad winter in more than 15 years, the last occasion on which the Thames was partly frozen over in the early part of 1895.

“If very cold winters come on an average once every twelve years, an old-fashioned winter is certainly overdue, for there is no ground for supposing that our climate is changing. But it is not the case that cold winters follow hot summers as an invariable rule. They sometimes do so, but the contrary would seem to be as often the case, for the hot summers of 1868 and 1887, to quote two examples, were followed by comparatively mild winters.

The law of averages is certainly on the side of a severe winter this year, but in the case of the weather it is never safe to argue from any law, and as the price of coal is going up, everyone must hope that this time, at all events, the Clerk of the Weather will be merciful.

In the event the Clerk was merciful and winter was mild.

Top 10 warmest and coldest winters
Warm winters are often thought of as a modern phenomenon but there were plenty in days past

This mild theme continued for a period prompting the Dundee Courier on Monday, January 2nd 1922 to ask: “Where are our winters? Is our climate changing?” The leading article goes on: “Here we are in January, and so far we have had no snow to speak of. Yes, our climate is changing, and has been for many years. We do not need weather records to tell us that. Our memories provide striking comparisons. In our boyhood days we greased our boots, tucked our trousers in, pulled the ear-flaps of our caps (you remember the style) down tight, wrapped mufflers around our necks (but not for fashion sake), then stood by the big fire to warm up before starting to plod our way through deep snow school.

“Who can forget the snowball battles after school; the hustle home for skates and to the ponds until nightfall; and then some? In those times we planned skating parties, and we were not disappointed. Do we need the records of thermometers and snow gauges to remind of the days of stinging cold and streets “piled high with snow ?

Anyone who says our climate is not changing has not been on this earth long enough to know. The severe winters left indelible marks upon our grandparents and great-grandparents, and the weather developed strong constitutions. They tell of successive winters of heavy snow and intense cold, beginning early in November and lasting until late in March. The snow often was piled up from four to six feet deep on the level.

top 10 wet n dry winter
There’s been far more wet winters than dry winters in modern times

“The seasons in those times were evidently well marked, for frequently made of their definite beginning and ending. Winter evidently was the season that concerned our ancestors most, for only slight mention made of any unusual summer.

In Britain the last few years winter temperatures have been higher than the average. The cold period has several times occurred in the autumn and May is showing a tendency to become the most pleasant month of the year, and so we are again reminded that the climate is changing; while statisticians say that average temperatures have remained practically the same for the last 600 years.

“A change in climate does not necessarily involve a change from the average mean temperature. It frequently happens that a warmer winter and a cooler summer or vice versa, or even a moderate winter and an unusually hot summer leave the average practically the same, while climatalogically very decided changes have taken place.”

Six years later a very poor summer prompted the Dundee Evening Telegraph on Tuesday, July 3rd 1928 to again ask the “eternal question”: Is Our Climate Changing? “With days of wind and rain that have made June and July days seem more like March and at times, even November, we are still awaiting our real summer. It is not uncommon to hear people speculating as to whether, after all, our seasons are not in process of changing.

“It is interesting, even if is not comforting, writes a correspondent, to know that people were speculating on exactly the same matter many years ago, and that in 1892 the author of Dundee and Dundonians Seventy Years Ago, when writing on Olden Rime Storms, Floods and Droughts, thought to ask: “Is our climate changing?”

warm and cold summers
Five of the ten warmest summers have occurred relatively recently

“In a climate like ours,” says the writer of that interesting little book, the weather is a never-ending topic. Warmer and Colder. I have often heard old people speak of the weather changes that had taken place since their young days, as they expressed it. The summers, they said, were then much warmer, and, as an instance, they said that barley would be above the ground in forty-eight hours after sowing. It was then, they admitted, the last grain that was sown.

The summers then were so hot that the cows could only be put out to pasture in the early morning and evening, as they were driven mad by the ‘glegs’ or horse flies biting them. Then the winters were almost arctic in their severity and length. The seasons were also more sharply divided, approaching those of Russia and North America in their rapid seasonal transitions.

“I know that many about my own age have the same ideas of what has taken place in their time. A very hot or a very cold season or two may, as we get older, come to assume the general character of that far-off time, still I cannot but think that for a good many years past there has been more of a mixing of summer and winter than was the case fifty years ago, winter now being often found in the lap of spring, and summer-like weather about the new year.

“On a New Year’s Day – I can’t remember the date – I gathered blossom from our gooseberry bushes to show to a friend.”

On February 5th 1929 the newspapers were promoting a “new series of talks entitled ‘Is Our Climate Changing'”. The first speaker was a Mr Gordon Manley of the University of Durham. The paper said that the talks, in view of the widespread interest in weather conditions and forecasts, should prove of rather more than usual interest.

wet n dry summers
Three of the ten driest summers have occurred recently though it is notable that 2012 ranks 4th wettest summer

Manley later became probably the best known, most prolific and most expert on the climate of Britain of his generation. It took him 30 years to assemble the Central England Temperature (CET) series of monthly mean temperatures stretching back to 1659 – the longest standardised instrumental record available for anywhere in the world.

In the Dundee Courier on Wednesday, July 29, 1931, a report on a recent article “Has our climate changed?” had aroused considerable interest. David Grewar, the well known Glenisla authority, who has a long experience of the glens, gives his views below.

“Such variety of opinion exists as to whether or not our weather has changed. Some say that it has, others that it has not, and that any supposed change is due to the exaggerative effects of memory. These differences of opinion do not only exist among laymen, but among scientists as well.

Making all due allowance for changed habits and the tricks of memory, the older among us are undoubtedly correct when we say that the seasons now are different from our younger days. Then our winters were more severe, our summers better; now there’s more of a levelling up between the two.

“Mere meteorological records of temperature and precipitation cannot be taken as proof of what popularity constitutes severe winter. Suppose, for instance, that a heavy fall of snow is experienced in December, and is slightly augmented now and again for the next two months, and that never more than a few degrees of frost are registered, records would represent that as a mild winter; whereas reality it would be a severe one, because the ground would be deeply covered with snow for the whole winter. On the other hand, we may have a winter of severe frost, with little or no snow, claimed as a severe one.”

Eighteen months later and the Gloucester Citizen, on Friday, January 6th 1933, asked: “Is our climate changing?” The sub heading “January mends its manners” again enquired about whether the persistent succession of mild Januaries in the present century suggested something in the nature of a change in climate?

In the French Revolutionary calendar the division of the year from the middle of December to the middle of January was the month “Nivose” or “snowy”. The Anglo-Saxons called January “Wulfrnonath” because the weather was so intense that wolves, emboldened by hunger, left the forest and invaded the villages. The Dutch used to call January “Lauw-maand” or “frosty month”.

Today, in many parts of the country, particularly in the south and west, amateur gardeners have the delightful rare experience of seeing standard and rambler roses in full bloom, primroses blooming in rich clumps, stocks, polyanthus, indeed, show off flowers usually retarded by frost until the spring.

This changing character of “January freeze-the-pot-by-the-fire” is commented upon by a writer in the current issue Nature:

“January, the coldest month of the year in England, is proverbially associated with snow and ice. During the twentieth century, however, January has not lived up to its name but has been much more open, mild and stormy. with few prolonged frosts.

“At Greenwich the mean January temperature during the decade 1921-30 was 41.3Fs, more than two degrees above normal and probably five or six degrees higher than in some of the decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This persistent period of mild winters has extended over the whole of western and central Europe and is associated with a greater frequency of south-westerly winds and may almost be regarded as a change of climate.”

Within five years, in 1938, Guy Callender produced a paper that developed a theory that Earth temperatures had been rising in line with increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It was the first time that somebody had made this connection: the birth of the science of man-made climate change.

treewp
If the oak before the ash…

In 1942, the Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, on Saturday, February 21, was discussing old weather rhymes.

“The speaker gave the following to us as among the most reliable weather verses:

“Livening red and morning grey, are surest signs of a very fine day.”

“When the dew is in the grass, rain will never come to pass.”

“There was a flicker of reason, he said, in the rhyme “rain before seven, fine before eleven”.

“Is our climate changing? Dealing with the question of our climate changing Mr Pettipher observed that people’s idea that the old-fashioned type of weather had gone forever, and that some such solution as the diversion of the Gulf Stream was the cause of the winter warmth, received a rude shock in the early months of 1939 and 1940, which, with the exception of 1929 were probably more severe than anything since 1895.

“Hot summers seemed to have been rather less frequent than in years past ; but our land was not really one of perpetual fog and gloom some novelists would have us believe, nor as bad as American thought when he wrote :

Dirty Days hath September, April. June and November ; from January up to May, the rain it raineth every day ; all the rest have thirty-one, without a blessed gleam of ; and if any of them had two and thirty they’d be just as wet and twice as dirty ! (Laughter.)

“In terms of Buckingham rainfall the speaker emphasized the necessary practical value, especially to sailors, fishermen, agriculturists and sportsmen, and now to our airmen, of weather study and manv observations with regard to rainfall described the Air Ministry’s organisation of 6,000 observers in the different parts of the country, of whom he was one, pointing out that the work had been described as of “national importance” because of its practical value.

“He emphasized that it was not a dry, hot summer that caused anxiety regarding water supplies; but a dry winter season. Buckingham’s average rainfall over a 20-year period was 25.43 inches. During the remarkable thunderstorm of May 19th when the roof of Buckingham Hospital was set alight by lightning 1.01 inches fell in thirty minutes, the percentage of 2.02 inches in the hour qualifying for a place in British Rainfall for a fall of unusual intensity.”

wileyMuch has been written about climate change in newspapers and scientific papers since the war. For a long period during the 1960s and 1970s the concern was about global cooling. But this changed in the 1990s when it became scientists identified that the Earth was beginning to warm.

A search of Wiley, the publisher shows a sharp increase in incidences of articles and papers that feature climate change. It is surprisingly just how big the increase has been since the beginning of the 1990s.

ft articlesLooking at the last 10 years the Financial Times mention of the phrase ‘climate change’ is much more variable, perhaps reflecting the world financial crash of 2008 when concern was deflected away from the environment and on to the economy.

Concerns over climate change today have moved on immeasurably since those first lines of concern were vented in newspapers in 1868. But the socio-economic and geo-political arguments that are associated with the science deserve a blog all on their own. The long-range models that are still being developed, together with further study of ocean sediment, ice cores, tree rings etc illustrate that there is so much more we need to learn about this fascinating subject.

News editors would do well to take a moment the next time they report a hurricane, tornado, flood or snowstorm and realise that ‘freak’ events do happen and that it is not necessarily climate change that is the cause of that particular event in time.

As Mark Twain apparently said in 1887: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”

* Articles featured in the British Newspaper Archive were referenced in compiling this blog

CET

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