Storm Desmond. An extreme weather event? or is it proof that global warming has arrived?

Extratropical Cyclone Storm Desmond formed on the 4th and dissipated on the 8th December 2015.  This storm directed a plume of moist air known as an atmospheric river causing record amounts of rainfall on upland areas of Northern Atlantic Europe.  In the United Kingdom the worst areas affected were centred on Cumbria, parts of Lancashire and the Scottish Borders.storm-desmond[1]

Severe rain and flooding was also reported in Northumberland, North Wales and Yorkshire.  Widespread disruption to rail services from flooding and high winds resulting in the suspension of rail services across the country occurred.

Rainfall Records

In the UK rainfall records are based on digitised data going back to the 19th Century.  With over a 100 years of digitised data for a storm to break records it will be exceptional.

A gauge at Honister Pass recorded 341.1 mm of rainfall in the 24 hours up to 1800 GMT on 5th December 2015, making a new UK record for any 24-hour period.  This beat the previous record of 316.4 mm set in November 2009 at Seathwaite, also in Cumbria.  A new 48-hour record (0900 to 0900 hrs) was also set, when 405 mm was recorded at Thirlmere in Cumbria in just 38 hrs.

This record rainfall was linked to the persistent, south-westerly air flow bringing a “river of moisture” from as far away as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.  Ocean temperatures in the West Atlantic are currently well above normal and may well have contributed to the very high levels of moisture in the air masses which unleased rainfall on the Cumbrian Fells.  Provisional rainfall statistics indicate many places in the Lake District have seen totals over 180 mm to 200 mm and local events may be in excess of 300 mm.

To put this  in context, think about the typical annual average rainfall that occurs in:

London (Kew Gardens)   Annual Average Rainfall  622 mm per year.

Aberdeen   Annual Average Rainfall  815 mm per year

During a 48hr period the rain caused by Storm Desmond was approximately 50% of the rainfall to annually fall at Kew Gardens.  Imagine what it would be like if you got a whole year’s rainfall falling on only 4 to 6 days.

Malham Cove

An another way to put the context of Storm Desmond into perspective is to consider Malham Cove located in the Peak District.

For the past 200 years or so, water has not fallen over the Cove’s Cliff (Dry Waterfall).  During this period of time rainfall events have been able to soak into the limestone rocks and emerge at the foot well at the base of the cliff.floods-desmond-wat_3519730b[1]

The exceptional rainfalls associated with Storm Desmond caused the limestone rocks to become saturated and water to tumble over the cliff face.

For a brief period of time Malham Cove became the UK’s tallest waterfall.  A sight that might not be seen again in our or a grand children’s life times.


Is Global Warming to Blame?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is difficult to determine with absolute certainty.  If you wish to determine the answer you need to rely on the results of a statistical interpretation of our rainfall records.  The mathematical analysis of data showing only small year on year changes is open to differing interpretation.

However, in respect to Storm Desmond the answer to this question was aptly summarised by Professor Dame Julia Slingo, Met Office Scientist:

“It’s too early to say definitively whether climate change has made a contribution to the exceptional rainfall.

We anticipated a wet, stormy start to winter in our three-month outlooks, associated with the strong El Nino and other factors.”

“However, just as with the stormy winter of two years ago, all the evidence from fundamental physics, and our understanding of our weather systems, suggests there may be a link between climate change and our record-breaking winter rainfall, an extended period of extreme UK winter rainfall is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Whilst it is uncertain that Global Warming is the root cause of extreme weather associated with Storm Desmond the fact Professor Julia is able to conclude that “an extended period of extreme UK rainfall is now seven times more likely than in a world without human emissions of greenhouse gases” is of concern.


Who/What is to Blame for Global Warming

This is a silly question that should be ignored!

It is a fact that the weather is becoming more extreme, why worry about who is it blame?  What we need is to agree what is to be done to minimise the extent of the change, minimising the risks to our communities, our economies and our way of life.

However, the world is run by economist’s and the question of who is going to pay seems to take center stage.

Should the developed (industrialised economies) pay an increased share of the bill due to the prolonged nature of their industrial legacy with countries currently striving to develop their industrial economies being allocated a smaller part of the bill.

Another reason for ignoring this question is that the answer to this question is so simple, the human race is  to blame; the human race is going to have to pay.  Humans should not be worried about the cause of global warming (manmade or natural), we should only worry about the effects on us and our way of life.

It doesn’t matter who/what is to blame for our changing weather, we need to focus on what is needed to minimise both the rate of change and the magnitude of the change.  This is the real challenge.


What is the Solution?

The solutions that are being proposed for protecting our way of life from changes to our weather fall into three broad categories.

Engineering Solutions

These types of solutions involve the construction of engineered structures design to protect discrete areas.  The structure is designed to give a level of protection against a certain size storm (storm event) for example a 1 in 100 year storm.


It is not possible to build a structure that can cope with the biggest storm that can be imagined.  Every structure that we build will fail if a storm bigger than it’s design capacity occurs.

Following on from the extreme weather that hit the Lake District in 2009 the Environment Agency unveiled and completed a series of flood protection measures designed to prevent serious flooding in Carlisle.  The cost of these protection measures amounted to some £38 million pounds to protect Carlisle against severe flooding events.

Yet within a relatively short period of time (10 years) these defences were overwhelmed and properties were again flooded.

It is unlikely that the Flood Defence works that were completed to protect Carlisle were poorly designed or incorrectly constructed.  The cause of these flood defences failing is almost certainly to be due to extreme weather.

What the recent breach of the flood defence confirm is that Engineering Solutions will protect against the storm intensity that they were designed to protect against eg 1 in 100 year event.

The problem is three fold:

  • Events of greater intensity do occur, but statistically they occur less frequently. If a weather event greater than the design parameters occurs, flooding will result. It is not possible to construct an engineered solution to protect against the biggest storm imaginable, every engineered structure will if operated long enough fail.
  • There is nothing to stop a 1 in 100-year event occurring two years in a row, it might not happen again for 200 years.
  • Bigger storm events are occurring more frequently. Any engineered solution will in the future be breached more often. Additional on-going expenditure to maintain the same level of protection will be required.

The construction of engineered solutions will not solve the problem caused by our changing weather, they are a means of treating the symptoms and just like medicine additional prescriptions may be needed to provide on-going elevation.



Geo-engineering (alternatively referred to as Climate Intervention) comprise measures to cause large scale changes to the Earth’s climatic system.  They have the aim of limiting adverse climate change.

Options for Geo-Engineering mainly revolve around two types of activities:

Carbon Dioxide removal

By removing carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) the rate of warming can be reduced.  Minimising the impacts of man’s industrial activities.

Solar Radiation Management

A type of climate engineering activities that directly seek to change the properties of the Earth’s Atmosphere; increasing the amount of solar radiation which is reflected back into space.  For example, the creation of stratospheric sulphate aerosols.

To date no known large scale Geo-Engineering Projects have taken place.  Almost all research into solar Geo-Engineering has consisted of computer modelling or laboratory tests.  Whilst some carbon dioxide removal practices; such as planting of trees and creation of bio-energy with carbon capture are underway, the effectiveness of using carbon capture to globally change our climate is open to debate.

Whilst the use of Ge-Engineering is a potential solution to our climate problems, it is not without risks.  A solution that can globally change our climate has the potential to upset the natural balance of the earth causing widespread and irreversible worldwide damage.  These risk needs to be correctly understood prior to use.

Of additional concern is that because humans have the ability to change the Earth’s climate we may put off the use of simpler but costlier solutions, making it increasingly more likely that we will need to intervene on a world wide scale.


Self Determination

The best, the simplest and most sustainable solution to our Climatic problems is for the human race to individually take control of its own destiny.  We can no longer leave it to others to solve the problem.

As individual’s we need to take control of the destiny of our planet.  To do this we need to understand why the current drive to the “Circular Economy” is so important and must be sustained and achieved.  We need to embrace it not moan about “how much a carrier bag costs”.

As individuals we need to recognise that the need to move to a sustainable economy is not a problem for Governments and multi-national conglomerates.  It is a our problem.

We need to recognise that as individuals acting with a collective will we can minimise the climatic risk which we face.  The Green House gases which are emitted are not owned by some faceless industrial company/foreign country they our greenhouse gasses. We as individuals are making them.

One of the difficulties with getting mass engagement to change lifestyles and hence reduce reliance on raw materials.  Is that the measures that individuals can take in practice when examined in isolation produce no immediate noticeable benefit.

By voluntary changing the way we live our lives to minimise the on-going changes to our climate we do not get the credit of saying “I did this”, at best we can claim that collectively “We did this”, and to claim this might need the on-going commitment and effort of a whole generation.

To get this long term commitment to a life style change we as a species need to recognise that we are part of and dependant on the natural environment around us.

A prediction of the future (no change scenario)

If you are brave enough to peak into the future to see a prediction of what the world may look like if we fail to tackle global warming issues click on the link below,

But before you click, take a moment to think about what the vision might be, perhaps the vision is of flooded homes, or homes built on sticks, or even cities surrounded by enormous flood protection barriers.

The vision might surprise you.

But be prepared, because  on a small scale the human race has already done this before.

To see a vision of a future world in which humans failed to tackle global warming issues  (Click Here).

Christmas Wish

So this Christmas in addition to making all the usual promises for self-improvement, drink less coffee, join a gym etc, make a long term commitment to improve the environment.

You don’t need to think big, after all a large number of small improvements can collectively have a worldwide impact.

Source: Watery News 13th December 2015