Is Storm Desmond significant?

Adam Cambridge | 11 Dec 2015 | Comments

On 5th December Storm Desmond broke records. It broke the record for the most amount of rainfall to fall in a 24 hour period at Honister Pass (341mm) and also broke the record for the most amount of rainfall to fall in a 48 hour period at Thirlmere.

As has been rightly pointed out by the industry and media, this feels truly significant because it was only six years prior that the record was broken in Seathwaite (316mm), which is also in Cumbria. Many who were flooded then – in reportedly a 1:100 year plus event – have been flooded again with an event of even greater severity. Often flood events affect different people in different locations even if the events are not “playing the game” in terms of our understanding of frequency, but here lightning is truly striking twice; inhabitants of Yalding on the Medway have suffered similar repetition of flooding but not such torrential, record breaking rainfall.

It’s important not only because it allows the public to recognise that both the frequency and severity of storms may be changing, but also because these events shake up and redefine the datasets that we use to estimate return periods and flooding levels when we are trying to manage flood risk. People are engaging with the significance of the storm and isn’t it a coincidence that this is coinciding with the climate change talks in Paris?

For me, Storm Desmond is significant for a number of additional reasons that may not be immediately apparent to those overwhelmed by the scenes or shocked by the magnitude of the storm:

1 - Future cities need to become sustainable

The country’s desire to deliver economic growth that is truly sustainable needs to recognise that water quantity and quality is integral to delivering our city powerhouses of the future. If the £12 billion pledged for Local Growth Funds and £400 million pledged for the Northern Powerhouse fail to recognise the importance of the impact of too much or too little water in cities alongside the issues of transportation, energy, health, and citizen wellbeing these investments may need to be supplemented from time to time by an emergency tax relief pot, as is currently being proposed for Cumbria (source), to account for the likely increasing frequency of future severe weather events (droughts and floods). Not reflecting on sustainability needs now will mean we will need to prepare future budgets with ever increasing risk pots: might it not be better to build infrastructure that is appropriately designed in the first place?

2 - Resilience needs to be built in

The Government’s recent pledge in the spending review and autumn statement to increase capital spending on Department for Transport infrastructure by 50% to £61 billion needs to be coupled with robust flood risk management planning.  If it isn’t, our new transport infrastructure for future generations will just add to our stockpile of assets that are currently considered to be non-resilient by the Department for Transport following the 2013/14 floods (source). Resilience is not necessarily difficult or even significantly more expensive in capital cost terms to include, it just needs to be considered in our future plans from the start.



3 - Adopting data and technology for rebuilding

The fact that Storm Desmond was named by a crowdsourcing pilot project undertaken by the Met Office (source) is signposting for how flood risk management, and the engineering sector at large, should make better use of data and technology to improve how we design infrastructure for the future. “Big data”, “Data Science”, “Genetic Algorithms”, “Systems of Systems”, and “ Smart Cities” are all phrases that have been used in the context of driving efficiency, but they have been difficult to incorporate because of in-built barriers (e.g. legislative and economic). While Storm Desmond has caused awful scenes in Cumbria, there is now an opportunity to adopt data and technology solutions to better plan, manage, prepare, and respond to future events that seem to be changing.

4 - Reconsidering what we value in an uncertain economy and changing climate

Lastly, but certainly not least, we need to have a frank discussion about what we value more in our ever changing climatic and economic conditions. In a previous article (source) I highlighted that flood alleviation schemes must currently justify two to four times as much benefit to every pound invested in a transport scheme and we must ask ourselves:

- Do we value more transport that, if not appropriately designed, is frequently disrupted?

- Do we appropriately value that disruption or continue to ignore it?

- Do we value protecting houses from flooding?

- Or do we value all of the above and should we value these and others more holistically to ensure public needs are truly served?

An open discussion about what the public value most in their daily lives would be difficult to have and would ultimately be highly affected by the short term issues that a family unit, individual, or community were dealing with unless we can develop messaging to help people understand what future issues may need to be overcome.

Following the winter floods of 2013/14 this is something that we at Atkins have investigated through our Futures research and development initiative, uncovering that not only can flood and transportation appraisal methods be coupled, but such cross discipline linkages can add substantial weight to investment priorities (an additional 33% more benefit for the one case study considered). A technique that we call “FloodRoute” allows future transport infrastructure to be developed in tandem with flood risk management needs, so that resilience measures, such as traffic light re-configuration and appropriate mediums for communication, can be readily included alongside improved levels of flood risk management service.

So, is Storm Desmond significant? Absolutely, but rather than just “putting it all back together as it was and crossing our fingers” we should be incorporating our learning and innovations, so that we adapt and deliver new infrastructure that is more sustainable, resilient, smart, and valued by our country. We have the tools, the knowledge and the ability we just now need to support a call to arms to do it right, and do it right now.