Complex and chaotic

It seems that freak weather events are becoming increasingly normal, writes Eddie Ford

Over the last few weeks the UK has been battered by a series of ferocious storms. Now familiar names, we had Storm Dudley, Storm Eunice and Storm Franklin - with possibly Storm Gladys to come within the next few days or so.

Storm Eunice has been the most destructive. At least four people died, as millions experienced severe disruption due to record-breaking wind speeds, reaching 122mph on February 18 on the Isle of Wight. This is the highest ever recorded in England, with Eunice being the worst storm since Burns’ Day 32 years ago, in which 47 people died (not forgetting the Great Storm of 1987 - a violent extratropical cyclone that killed 22). Thanks to Eunice, about a third of the UK population were told to stay at home, as the Met Office imposed two rare red warnings for much of southern England, south Wales and London. Trains were cancelled and delayed across the UK, including the complete cancellation of services in Wales. Over 400 flights were also cancelled. Many bridges were closed and the army had been placed on “standby” - though what they were supposed to do remains a mystery. At one stage, about 1.4 million homes were left without power and thousands were still waiting to be reconnected as of February 23.

According to meteorologists, something unusual about Eunice was the sheer speed at which it arrived. Yes, it initially followed the typical track of a British winter storm - a low-pressure area building out in the Atlantic. But then it was swept towards us by an unusually fast (200mph) jet stream. That very speed meant the worst of the rain and snow that came with it passed quickly. But it made little difference to the destructive power of the wind, as many trees and buildings were already weakened by Storm Dudley, which had passed by 48 hours before. Some feared that there would be severe tidal flooding along the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary, but thankfully that did not materialise.

Having said all that, we need to put things in perspective, even if every death is tragic. For instance, every 22 minutes someone is killed or seriously injured on UK roads, with 1,516 recorded deaths in 2020 - actually representing a significant decline, compared with the previous five years, due in part to the lockdown measures imposed in response to Covid. In 2020-21, 142 workers were killed at work and another 441,000 sustained non-fatal injuries.

Climate change?

Inevitably, you have to ask if climate change was responsible for Storm Eunice. Meteorologists expect that heavy rainfall, flooding and storm surges will become more common in the UK if global temperatures continue to increase - which is bound to happen, regrettably. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a worst scenario of temperatures rising somewhere between 2.4°C and 6.4°C by 2100, where the best estimate within this range is 4°C - a frightening scenario. For the UK, this will lead to warmer and wetter winters, hotter and drier summers and more frequent and intense weather extremes.

In some respects, it is not always helpful to pose a question in terms of whether an event is because of climate change or not - as if there was a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Understandably, scientists are often reluctant to blame specific weather events on climate change. After all, we are dealing with a complex, chaotic, system that has its own laws of motion. This means that climate change can be one of the causes, and can make events worse, but it is rarely - if ever - the only cause. In the specific case of Storm Eunice, however, the high-speed winds - according to most scientific opinion - are unlikely to have been caused by climate change. But the damage done to the UK shores will have been made worse by the rising temperatures.

Climate change could also push storms further up the globe, thanks to its impact on the jet stream. In essence, the jet stream is an air current that circles the northern hemisphere - distributing wind and rain, storms and heatwaves. Increasing air temperatures will almost certainly alter the flow of the air, causing the jet stream to move further north - which in turn will affect the storm tracks (the way storms travel over the north Atlantic and in turn hit us in the UK). Given that climate change is causing a poleward shift in the jet stream, you would expect a poleward shift in the storm tracks as well. It is also expected that we will see a deeper penetration of these storm tracks into Europe. While climate change so far has not made any detectable difference to the winds in these winter storms, nevertheless the damage caused by them has gotten worse, because the rainfall has become more intense and sea levels are rising - which can only be attributed to climate change. Thus storm surges are higher and more damaging than they would otherwise have been, affecting places they previously would not - a cumulative build-up. Quantitative change creates qualitative change.

As for climate change and flooding, the increased rain is caused by the thermodynamic effect, whereby a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour that needs to get out of the atmosphere. Currently, it is estimated that one degree of global warming results in a seven percent increase of rainfall in these weather events - which might not sound like much to the untrained ear, but it is a lot. Flooding from coastal storm surges and prolonged deluges will worsen still further, when these rare, explosive storms like Eunice take place in the context of a much warmer world. As long as global temperatures keep rising, these extreme weather events will get more frequent and more intense - resulting therefore in more flooding and intense rainfall, with many more long, hot heatwaves.

This further emphasises yet again the absolute importance of redesigning our cities, so that there are more green spaces - meaning that water has somewhere to go and does not end up flooding our homes. Green spaces also act to prevent the temperatures in cities from getting too insufferable. Another thing that urgently needs to be done is to stop the madness of building houses on floodplains, even though we know that conditions are going to get considerably worse in the winter - inviting disaster.

Wind power

On a more positive note, Storm Eunice’s 122mph winds generated some of the highest ever output from Britain’s wind turbines - though admittedly this was perhaps not an immediate consolation for those who had to go days without any power. Thanks to the storms, however, wind power significantly outpaced gas over the past week, with turbine energy generation averaging 11.48 gigawatts - well above the 7.2GW for gas. At the height of the storm on February 19, National Grid statistics showed that wind power accounted for 42% of total electricity across the UK, dwarfing fossil fuels (22%) and nuclear (15%).

This is part of a larger, more encouraging, picture. In fact, the UK is one of the best locations for wind power in the world and is considered to be the best in Europe. By the beginning of 2022, the UK had 11,037 wind turbines with a total installed capacity of over 24.4GW - the sixth largest capacity of any country in 2019. Overall, wind power contributed 24.8% of UK electricity supplied in 2020, having surpassed coal in 2016 and nuclear in 2018 - with the British government saying it is “committed” to a major expansion of offshore capacity by 2030. Polling has consistently shown that public opinion strongly supports the development of wind power, with nearly three quarters of the population agreeing with its use - even for people living near onshore wind turbines.

On Boxing Day 2020, a record 50.67% of energy used in the country was generated by wind power. Even better, on August 26 2020, wind briefly contributed 59.9% of the grid’s electricity mix. A new record was set during Storm Malik in January 2022, with maximum wind power generation reaching over 19.5GW - an extremely impressive figure.

Yes, unfortunately, there are silly people who find wind turbines ugly - like Nigel Farage, for example. He has said that they are “spoilers of the great British landscape” and “cost a fortune”. This is wrong on every count, of course. The costs of wind power production are steadily going down, unlike nuclear power. Then there was his daft claim last October that during September there was a three-week period when renewables accounted for between just 2% and 3% of our electricity.

Complete nonsense, needless to say. The first three weeks of September did see relatively low levels of renewable electricity production, but far above the levels given by Farage. On each day from September 1 to September 21, hydroelectricity, solar, and wind power produced 10%-19% of the UK’s electricity. Wind power alone in this period generated at least 4%‑14% of the total electricity.