Technology only now catching up to predict impact of climate change on flooding, says University of Hull expert

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Flood predictions are only now able to tell us what impact climate change may have on Yorkshire in years to come, according to a Hull expert, as technology was not good enough previously to do so.

Professor Daniel Parsons, Director of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull said “the fastest computers in the world” were not able to do the modelling needed just 10 years ago to predict future flooding risk, meaning it was only now a true picture of what was to come was emerging.

Flooded Mytholmroyd after Storm Ciara. Photo: Daisy Brasington

Flooded Mytholmroyd after Storm Ciara. Photo: Daisy Brasington

He said: “The Environment Agency is very good at predicting the next five days.”

He said similar advances in predicting the weather had been made in flood modelling, so the two were both now much more accurate than 20 years ago.

And this was mostly down to technological advances as computer systems could now run thousands of different scenarios at once.

But he said the steps forward in forecasting came first, and added: “The reality is in flood modelling we’re catching up with forecasters. It is really recent and there are a lot of reasons for that, there are massive complexities there and just 10 years ago the computational power just was not there.”

He said organisations such as the Environment Agency used the most up to date methods and had world-leading experts, but he said: “The bigger picture is I would call for a need for more longer term thinking.”

He said: “The longer term thinking is starting to happen, so for example in the Humber system, the Humber2100+ looks at what flood risk looks like in 80s years from now.

“But that’s been a real change in the agency to start thinking in these terms, such as do we need a Thames-like barrier in the Humber? What are the big challenges over that long term?

“A lot of the thinking has not been done with that and the real impact of climate change is going to be felt over this time. Our flood models 10 to 15 years ago had all kinds of assumptions in them.”

Looking forward he said the next major step for flood modelling would be predicting the behaviour of rivers, and how their width and depth changes over time.

“The UK has world-leading groups, there;s us in Hull and in Bristol, and that’s all well and good but all of these models assume rivers act like static pipes. We all know rivers actually wiggle around and change, they change in shape and how deep they are.

“At the moment we don’t account for any of those changes into the river 30 years from now.

“We know there’s going to be more intense rainfall, what we don’t know is, for example, how is the Channel going to have to change?”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We have one of the best forecasting services in the world which gives people and emergency services vital time to prepare in a flood. 38,000 properties are signed up to our free flood warnings across Yorkshire.

“The flood monitoring for the county, and the whole of the country, remains under constant review. As is our standard procedure, it will be rigorously examined after the recent flooding incidents to improve protection of homes and businesses.”