Citizen science project finds global warming makes very wet winters ‘a bit more likely’

An Oxford University citizen science project to assess the effects of global warming has reported a small but statistically significant increase in the probability of extremely wet winters in southern England.

Following preliminary assessments from the Met Office, Oxford University researchers undertook the first scientific experiment to analyse whether the risk of extreme rainfall has changed due to climate change after the winter deluge between December 2013 and February 2014. Total rainfall in Oxford over the three months was the highest ever recorded by the University’s Radcliffe Observatory since it set up 200 years ago.

Scientists used the spare capacity on volunteers’ home computers to compare tens of thousands of simulations of possible weather in our present-day climate with tens of thousands of simulations of a hypothetical world without the influence of past greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere using the same climate model. Comparing numbers of extremely wet winters between these two groups provides estimates of the influence of climate change on the UK weather. They found a 1-in-100-year winter rainfall event (ie. 1% risk of extreme rainfall in the winter of any given year) is now estimated to be a 1-in-80 year event (i.e. 1.25% risk of extreme rainfall in any given winter) so the risk of a very wet winter has increased by around 25%.

The researchers say this change is statistically significant thanks to the number of computer simulations they were able to run– over 33,000 computer models run in the experiment. However, the researchers say that while their finding is statistically robust the result depends on how man-made climate change is represented in the experiment. They used different climate models to estimate the pattern of global warming which provided a range of possible changes in risk. In several cases, the models gave no change or even a reduction in risk, but overall the simulations showed a small increase in the likelihood of extremely wet winters in the south of England.

The experiment for the weather@home project, based at the University’s School of Geography and the Environment, started in March 2014. The winter deluge affected large parts of south England and Wales and as a consequence, large areas were flooded, some more than once during the three-month period. This led to a good deal of public debate, which at one point involved Prime Minister David Cameron, about whether the extreme rainfall and resulting floods could be linked to climate change.

Researcher Dr Friederike Otto, from the weather@home project based in the University’s School of Geography and the Environment, said: “It will never be possible to say that any specific flood was caused by human-induced climate change. We have shown, however, that the odds of getting an extremely wet winter are changing due to man-made climate change. Past greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution have ‘loaded the weather dice’ so the probability of the south of England experiencing extremely wet winters again has slightly increased.”

She added: “Total winter rainfall, although useful as a benchmark, is not the direct cause of flood damage, so we are working with collaborators, such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, to explore the implications of our results for river flows, flooding and ultimately property damage.”

Anyone who wants to join the project or volunteer spare time on their home computer should visit the weather@home website.

Graphs displaying the results of the weather@home project can be viewed here.

Watch Professor Myles Allen speaking about these results at a press conference at the EGU General Assembly [Myles speaks at 23 minutes into the video].

Read coverage of this story in the Guardian, the BBC and on the University of Oxford news site.

Mobile water payments article in Water International journal Best Paper Awards

A journal article by Oxford researchers on the impacts and implications of mobile water payments in East Africa has been given an honourable mention in the Water International Best Paper 2012 Awards.

The paper ‘Impacts and implications of mobile water payments in East Africa’ is co-authored by Tim Foster, Rob Hope and Aaron Krolikowski, Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, and two formers students of the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management, Cliff Nyaga and Ilana Cohen.

The research takes a look at the unprecedented growth in Africa’s mobile communications sector and the new opportunities it offers to address the continent’s persistent water service challenges.

Download the paper for free.

Vacancy: Postdoctoral Research Associate – Water Resource Systems Modelling for Drought Risk Assessment

School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford

Grade 7: £29,837 – £36,661 p.a.

The Environmental Change Institute (ECI) is leading a major research project “MaRIUS: Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of droughts and water Scarcity” within the UK Droughts on Water Scarcity Programme. MaRIUS is an interdisciplinary project examining the impacts of droughts from economic, social and environmental perspectives.

We are seeking to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Associate who will work with us to develop and demonstrate new water resources systems models for drought risk assessment at catchment and national scales.

The successful candidate will have experience of implementation, and ideally also design and development, of water resources system models. You will have a flair for the development of innovative system modelling solutions. You must have a Doctorate and excellent programming skills, demonstrated through the implementation of system models, and ideally also experience of distributed computing and advanced visualisation. You will have a sound understanding of probabilistic risk analysis, uncertainty analysis and decision analysis and preferably also innovative experience of applying these methodologies in the context of water allocation, hydro-economic and water infrastructure planning decisions. The postholder will be expected to publish their research work in the international academic literature. You will be expected to participate enthusiastically in the multidisciplinary MaRIUS research consortium, including engagement with project stakeholders in government and industry.

This is a fixed-term post for 24 months in the first instance.

For an informal discussion about the post, contact Professor Jim Hall, via his PA Sue King.

You will be required to upload a CV and supporting statement as part of your online application.

The closing date for applications is 12.00 noon on 6 May 2014. Interviews will be held on 16 May 2014.

To apply, go to the vacancy webpage on the university’s employment website and click on the Apply Now button.

Job description and selection criteria

Vulnerable substations serving millions still at risk from flooding

An article in the Independent online highlights the significant threat UK power supplies face from flooding, with comment from Professor Jim Hall.

The National Grid has revealed that seven of the country’s biggest electricity substations could be affected by flooding, putting up to 1.1 million households at risk of losing power.

Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at the University of Oxford, said: “The 2007 floods were a wake-up call in terms of vulnerability and some very significant steps have been taken since then.

“But we are not there yet and in a changing climate we need to make sure that we are able to deal with past hazards and the increasing risks we face in the future.”

Read the full article in The Independent online

David Grey delivers keynote at McMaster University water forum

Water security is an increasing global concern as demand for fresh water increases and climate change makes supplies even more unpredictable.

The water security challenge was discussed at McMaster University on 8 April at the Philomathia Water Forum: 21st Century Water Security Challenges for Society and Science.

The event featured two lively discussion panels with topics spanning science, policy, health, innovation and technology, as well as a keynote address from Oxford’s David Grey.

The initiative was organised by Dustin Garrick, Assistant Professor Philomathia Chair in Water Policy at McMaster University. Garrick was previously a research fellow at Oxford and is now leading an interdisciplinary water research network at McMaster which was launched at the event.

“There are several mega-trends in society related to population growth, urbanisation and climate change which make managing existing water more challenging,” Garrick said in an interview with Radio Canada International. “The issue is how to manage that small amount of water that is available as freshwater, for society and society’s evolving needs.”

Garrick is working closely with Oxford colleagues on the OECD/Global Water Partnership Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, co-chaired by Professors David Grey and Jim Hall. The Task Force aims to build for case for global action to address water-related risks by quantifying the impacts of water insecurity and documenting the evidence of the benefits of strengthening water security.

Related links

From flood science to flood policy – highly commended paper award

The paper ‘From flood science to flood policy: the Foresight Future Flooding project seven years on’ published in foresight has been selected by the journal’s Editorial Team as a Highly Commended Paper of 2013.

The paper, authored by Oxford’s Edmund Penning-Rowsell and Jim Hall, assesses the impact of the Foresight Future Flooding (FFF) project, both nationally and internationally. The FFF project researched flood risk in the UK to the year 2100 for central government, using scenarios and a national risk assessment model backed by qualitative analysis from panels of some 45 senior scientists.

View all award winners and download the full paper

A journey through the Ebro River Basin from the mountains to the tap

The Ebro Basin tour is the flagship fieldtrip of the MSc Water Science, Policy and Management and brings to life many of the issues studied on the course. From abandoned villages and contentious dams, to ecological crises and pollution disasters, the tour vividly illustrates the contested nature of water and the social, political and scientific debates surrounding its use and management.

Rafting on the Gallego river, a tributary of the Ebro

Rafting on the Gallego river, a tributary of the Ebro

On 16 March 2014, our students left the classrooms of Oxford University to embark upon a seven-day tour of the largest river basin in Spain. The journey took them from the Pyrenees to the Ebro Delta, meeting representatives from government, academia, civil society and business along the way.

The students visited the remains of Esco in the mountainous upper reaches of the basin – one of three villages that were abandoned in the 1950s when the Yesa Dam was built, flooding the surrounding farmland and destroying the local agriculture-based livelihoods.

At the heart of dam polemics is the nature of their benefits and costs, which are distributed unevenly across space and time. At the political level, the rational for the Yesa dam is compelling. The 1,500 people affected negatively pale in significance to the estimated 4-6 million people that benefit downstream and security of water supply for the city of Zaragoza. Discussions continue today as work to raise the dam wall sparks fresh debates.

A trip rafting in the village of Murillo de Gallego pointed to another dam controversy. The rafters spoke passionately against a proposed reservoir downstream that would mean the end of the rafting industry and main source of employment for the village.

Students visit the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro

Students visit the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro

In Zaragoza, students visited the first river basin organisation in the world, the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro (CHE), and the body responsible for managing the uneven and uncertain supply of water in the Ebro basin and balancing competing needs from agriculture, industry, municipalities and ecosystems.

Further downstream in the Los Monegros region, low value irrigated agriculture dominates the local economy but there are growing concerns about the environmental impacts of this sector. There is a clear perception among the irrigation communities in the region of a historic ‘right to water’ – a matter of livelihoods – despite economic and ecological arguments against the viability of farming in the area.

At the Ebro Delta, pink flamingos, rice fields, and wetland lagoons litter the scenic landscape which is an area international importance due to its abundant fauna and flora. The Environmental Technology and Research Institute (IRTA) highlighted some of the major environmental issues facing the area, including the lack of connectivity of the river due to the many dams, preventing vital sediments from reaching the shrinking delta.

The Llobregat desalination plant

The Llobregat desalination plant

The final stop of the tour was a visit to desalination plant located next to the mouth of the River Llobregat which supplies drinking water to over 4.5 million people in the Barcelona Metropolitan area. It is the largest desalination plant in Europe that supplies water for human consumption and provides a more politically palatable, if expensive, alternative to rationing scarce freshwater resources.

As the journey down the river basin unfolded and the number of stakeholders and perspectives grew, students gained an appreciation of the complexity of water management. Every stakeholder encountered along the way had a compelling case and a personal story, yet their needs and visions were often at odds.

Any major water management decision will produce winners and losers. The question then, is how to maximise benefits, meet the many and competing demands, navigate the tradeoffs, and stimulate economic growth while meeting environmental needs?

The role of scientists is to gather and communicate the best evidence available to enable policymakers and water managers to make well-informed decisions about the way scarce water resources are used. The MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management is equipping the next generation of water leaders with the knowledge and skills to evaluate and tackle the complex water challenges found in the Ebro and beyond.

UK faces more extreme events and floods with climate change

Professor Jim Hall says the UK will see an increase in temperatures, extreme events and floods as a result of climate change.

Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks and Director of the Environmental Change Institute, speaks to the Telegraph about the impacts of climate change in the UK in light of the newly released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

“What we’ve seen this winter is consistent with what we would expect to see in a changing climate,” he said. He warned that that the UK needs to think about the long term when making decisions today if we are going to be able to cope with a changed climate.

In an article in the Guardian online, Professor Hall said that adaptation is difficult, even in a developed country such as the UK. He noted that building still takes place on flood plains, efforts to reduce water use in anticipation of droughts are not working and that infrastructure remains vulnerable.