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

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.

Coastal flooding at the Wow! How? Science fair

A team of volunteers from Oxford University wowed nearly 4,500 visitors with their ‘Disaster Zone’ stand at the Wow! How? fair held at the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford on 15 March.

Andres Payo with his coastal flooding and erosion display

Andres Payo with his coastal flooding and erosion display

Embellished with hazard tape, hi-vis vests and flashing hazard lights, the team offered a range of activities and information displays to educate people about natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanos, tornados and flooding.

Dr Andres Payo, iCOAST Systems Modeller at the Environmental Change Institute, presented information on coastal flooding and erosion. He explained that coastal flooding occurs when defences or natural barriers are breached or overtopped while coastal erosion is a result of waves and currents changing the physical shape of the coastline. You can download his poster here.

Wow! How? is a hands-on family science fair which forms part of the Oxfordshire Science Festival. Running for the 10th year, the fair on Saturday was bigger than ever and filled the museums with exciting activities and experiments.

Andres was joined in the Disaster Zone by Jeannie Scott and Patrick Thomson from the School of Geography and the Environment, along with volunteers from the Department of Earth Sciences.

Related links

Calculating the risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion

Scientists at the University of Oxford are developing a computer model that will forecast the environmental risks to Britain’s coastline for decades ahead. This will be of immense value to local authority planning departments.

Happisburgh Beach, Norfolk, UK. Photo credit

Happisburgh Beach, Norfolk, UK. Photo credit

Calculating the risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion has become ever more important as the UK’s weather patterns change and sea levels rise. The capability to do that depends upon having reliable data. Developing such data and creating a model for forecasting has been the work of scientists such as Professor Jim Hall and Dr Andres Payo at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

Around 35% of the UK’s coastline is vulnerable to flooding or erosion. Some areas are especially susceptible such as the East Coast. Research in Norfolk and Suffolk by Professor Hall and other scientists has shown how coastal areas respond to the forces of nature over years, decades and centuries.

By measuring the changes in coastal formation and recording how these changes occur – e.g. by sedimentary movement, wave height, wave direction etc, – the scientists have been able to construct a simulation model of the whole process of coastal change. Much of this process is self-regulating, e.g. rocky cliffs erode to form beaches below. More dramatic are those instances where soft cliff erosion leads to a build up of new headlands miles down the coast.

The current coastal model – created by Hall and colleagues – focuses on cliffs and beaches, but the newer, more advanced model will include estuaries, tidal inlets, sand dunes, spits and sandbanks. The East Anglian coast, which has long been the subject of Professor Hall’s research, has many examples of these. Meanwhile Hall’s colleagues in Manchester are looking at the coastal impact of offshore energy devices.

“The new insights of potential coastal change being delivered by the iCoast Consortium could bring about a step change in our understanding and management of the coast” said Owen Tarrant, Principal Scientist at the Environment Agency. “Only by understanding the full picture of the effects of both natural change and the influence of human activity over the long-term and large scale will we be able to manage flood and erosions risk sustainably.”

This research by Hall and his colleagues has applications far beyond East Anglia. In the UK the coastal model is being used by the Environment Agency and local authorities, when assessing long- term plans for coastal and offshore development. Beyond the UK New Zealand has shown interest. Other countries are likely to follow.

Funded by: Natural Environment Research Council

Related links

Are the UK winter floods linked to climate change?

The general public are being called to take part in an Oxford University research project to find out what role climate change played in the UK’s record-breaking wet winter.

The rainfall from December last year through to February resulted in the wettest winter ever recorded at the Radcliffe Meterological Station in Oxford. The deluge caused widespread flooding across southern England, affecting thousands of people and resulting in an estimated £1bn or more in damage.

The project weather@home, led by Professor Myles Allen, will reveal whether climate change made the extreme rainfall and resulting floods more likely to occur, or not. Anyone can use their home computer to run weather simulations and contribute results to the experiment.

One set of weather model simulations will represent ‘real world’ conditions and possible weather, while another set of will represent the weather in an imagined world where humans have not changed the composition of the atmosphere through greenhouse gas emissions. By comparing the number of extreme rainfall events in the two sets, researchers can work out if the risk of a wet winter has increased, decreased or been unaffected by human influence on climate.

The models have to be run many thousands of times to ensure that the estimated probability of extreme events is robust. That’s why the researchers are asking for the help of the general public who can download the computer software and run the experiment from home. The results should be available within a month and will be published as they come in.

In the video below Nathalie Schaller, a researcher based at the Environmental Change Institute, explains the science behind the project.

Read the Guardian article ‘Home computers to help scientists assess climate role in UK’s wet winter’

Follow Damian Carrington’s blog on the Guardian website which discusses the science and its implications

Visit the weather@home project website and contribute to the experiment

Is engineering a way out of the flooding?

Houses should be redesigned, roads raised and tidal lagoons built that generate energy to reduce the impact of flooding in the UK, according to a panel of senior engineers and academics, reported in the Guardian.

Flooding in Shepperton, Surrey, on 16 February 2014. Photo credit: Jim Crossley

Flooding in Shepperton, Surrey, on 16 February 2014. Photo credit: Jim Crossley

In light of the UK’s wettest winter on record and recent flooding in large parts of southern England, the panel gathered at a briefing in London organised by the Science Media Centre and Royal Academy of Engineering to talk about what engineering can (and can’t) do to prevent and reduce the impact of flooding in the UK.

“In some senses we’re still in a mode of ‘discovery by disaster’,” said Professor Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks and Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. “With the exception of rail infrastructure, critical national infrastructure has come through this latest set of floods pretty well, but adapting to changing climate risk is still very much a work in progress.”

Experts questioned the £4 million government plan to dredge two rivers in Somerset, suggesting that this project will have only ‘marginal’ effects on future flooding. Commenting in an article in the Independent, Jim Hall said “dredging can and does increase the cross-sectional area of a channel which means that under certain conditions the channel will drain faster but in places like the Somerset levels it also allows the tide to come in faster and in other conditions it can propagate water downstream to other locations faster.”

Press coverage

UK floods: raise roads and redesign houses, engineers say
The Guardian online, Jessica Aldred, 25/02/2014

Government’s £4m fund to dredge rivers in Somerset could only have ‘marginal’ effects on future flooding, experts warn
The Independent, 25/02/2014, Steve Connor

Raise Britain’s roads to prevent flooding chaos
The Telegraph online, 24/02/2014, Sarah Knapton

Environment Agency vows to minimise flood risk
ITV News online, 25/02/2014

Agency vows to minimise flood risk
Belfast Telegraph, 25/02/2014

New book distills best practice for flood risk management

Paul Sayers and Edmund Penning-Rowsell (both Visiting Research Associates at the School of Geography and the Environment) are co-authors of a new book which synthesises lessons from international experiences and identifies best practice approaches to flood risk management in challenging large-scale and inter-related environments.

Over recent decades the concept of flood risk management has been cultivated across the globe. Implementation however remains stubbornly difficult to achieve. In part this reflects the perception that a risk management paradigm is more complex than a more traditional standard-based approach as it involves ‘whole systems’ and ‘whole life’ thinking; yet this is its main strength and a prerequisite for more integrated and informed decision making.

The book, entitled ‘Flood risk management: a strategic approach’ results from a collaborative effort between WWF, the Chinese Government’s General Institute of Water Resources & Hydropower Planning (GIWP), UNESCO, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and a number of leading international experts from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and the United States.

The comprehensive volume reviews historical flood events that have shaped modern approaches, before describing emerging good practice. It identifies ‘nine golden rules’ that underpin good flood risk management decision making today, and explores a number of techniques and topics in detail, such as risk and uncertainty analysis, spatial planning, and emergency planning.

The flood risk management book is part of a series on strategic water management and accompanies two other publications on river basin planning and basin water allocation planning.

Download all three books

Experts discuss changing extremes in hydrology in the UK

The conference ‘Changing extremes in hydrology’ was held at Exeter College in Oxford on 15 April 2013, and examined the characteristics and impacts of the extreme hydrological conditions experienced in the UK during 2012.

The conference’s theme was inspired by the extraordinary nature – in hydrological terms – of 2012. The first three months of 2012 were marked by the on-going drought which began in 2010. In early April water companies were forced to issue water use restrictions, affecting 20 million users. Then just a few days after the restrictions were imposed, a period of intense rains commenced and continued for the entire summer period, making it the wettest summer in the past 100 years. This prolonged period of rain resulted in widespread flooding across the country throughout the remainder of the year.

The aim of the conference was to review the meteorological and hydrological conditions that characterised 2012, to review the economic damages associated with the drought and flooding, and to provide a broader conceptual framework for understanding how the occurrence of extreme hydrological events might change in the future as a result of climatic changes and other drivers.

Mike Kendon from the Met Office opened the event by describing the characteristics of the 2010-2012 drought and placing it within the context of previous droughts across England and Wales. The drought was one of the ten most significant of the last century, but what was really remarkable was its sudden end in the spring of 2012 with the onset of greater than average rains.

This sudden transition from too little water to too much water was discussed by Simon Parry from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Parry explained how a shift in the jet stream in the spring of 2012 provided the climatic conditions necessary to produce two of the wettest months on record. This rapid change from drought to flood conditions had massive impacts on farmers, explained Tim Hess from Cranfield University. He pointed out that very few farmers are insured against flood damage and recommended a series of measures to make the UK agricultural industry more resilient to weather-related shocks.

Stuart Hyslop from the Environment Agency spoke about the effects of the 2010-2012 drought on water supply in the Thames region. He pointed to the increasing sectoral competition for water for agriculture, domestic use, recreation and wildlife during low flow periods. In order to resolve this conflict, the Environment Agency has a role in monitoring and coordinating the different water users to ensure that an equitable balance is struck between users wherever possible. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, Visiting Research Associate at Oxford University, described the damages caused by the 2012 floods.  Comparing the damage with that of historical floods, he showed how economic losses caused by flooding are overestimated in the UK.

Bill McGuire, University College London, addressed the problem of extremes from a broader perspective, providing examples of how changing climate triggers geological events such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. He suggested that changes on the Earth’s surface induced by climatic changes, such as ice sheet melting and sea level rise, may trigger geological catastrophes. This may imply that in the future we might witness “geological mayhem as well as climatic mayhem”, he said.

Patrick McSharry from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University, discussed the contribution of mathematical statistics and the theory of extreme values to quantifying risks associated with extreme weather events, enabling better estimates of the levels of risk associated with catastrophic events.

Bruno Merz from the German Research Center for Geosciences discussed the linking of observed changes in flood frequency with specific drivers. While it may be easy to detect changes in flood frequency, separating the effects of drivers such as climate change, dam building or land use change on flooding is much more difficult and requires further research effort. This issue was also taken up by Thomas Kjeldsen from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, whose research investigates the effects of urbanisation on a catchment’s flood response. Comparing pre-urbanisation and post-urbanisation flood data has increased understanding of how urbanisation affects flooding frequency.

The final presentation by Harvey Rodda, Hydro-GIS Ltd, considered the nature of floodplain development in the UK and how flood risk is incorporated within the planning process. A number of examples showed how flood risk may, in some instances, be used as a lever against problematic planning applications.

The conference demonstrated clearly the need for further research to link observed changes in flood frequency to drivers, and to better understand and manage rapid shifts from drought to flood conditions. At the intersection between research and policy, thinking should be devoted to investigating risks associated with extreme events, and to means of financing these risks and sharing the burden of extreme hydrological events across society. In terms of policy-relevant findings, a better understanding and an unbiased representation of the damages caused by hydrological extremes is required to prioritise flood protection investments and also to reduce the chances of inappropriate use of flood risk information in planning.

The conference was organised by Hydro-GIS Ltd, a UK-based hydrology and GIS consultancy company, and received sponsorship from Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. Visit the conference website

By Edoardo Borgomeo, DPhil student at the Environmental Change Institute

Responding to flood risk in China

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute, has jointly edited a special issue of the Journal of Flood Risk Management, which presents important lessons learned from a flood risk management project in China.

The Taihu Basin, located on the southern side of the estuary of the Yangtze River, is remarkably vulnerable to flooding. Major floods occurred in 1991 and 1999 and were associated with water levels that exceeded historical records. Damage was extensive and the events received significant attention from both local and central government.

The UK Government’s Chief Scientist, Sir David King, visited China in 2004 to cultivate scientific collaboration. During has visit it was decided to apply the methods of flood risk analysis and scenario analysis – developed in the recently completed UK Foresight project on Flood and Coastal Defence – to the Taihu Basin area. Funding was provided for a Chinese Foresight flooding project by the UK and Chinese governments and United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs. The project was launched under the auspices of the China-UK Science and Technology Commission in 2006 and was completed in 2009. It considered how the risks of flooding in the Taihu Basin might change over the next 50 years, as well as the best options for Government and other stakeholders for responding to future challenges.

The Taihu Basin Foresight Project involved collaborative work by researchers and practitioners in institutions in the UK and China, including numerous bilateral visits. It revealed a number of important lessons about flood risk management in rapidly developing countries, which form the basis of this special issue of the Journal of Flood Risk Management.

The project provides a blueprint for how the impacts of long-term changes in flood risk, driven by climatic and socio-economic changes among other processes, may be analysed in order to provide the evidence needed to inform adaptation decisions.

Jim Hall’s work on coastal flood risk wins Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize

A paper co-authored by the Director of the Environmental Change Institute, Professor Jim Hall, has been awarded the Lloyd’s Science of Risk Prize in the Climate Change category at a ceremony held at Lloyds of London on 29 November 2012.

The research, led by Professor Richard Dawson at Newcastle University, revealed that in some cases, allowing natural cliff erosion, rather than maintaining physical defenses could reduce the impact of flooding in neighbouring low-lying land.

Populations in coastal areas face considerable threats from sea level rise and increases in the frequency and intensity of storms associated with climate change. Urbanisation and expanding economic activity in these areas only add to the scale of risk.

This award-winning study, entitled ‘Integrated analysis of risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion under scenarios of long term change’ and published in the journal Climatic Change, used an integrated assessment methodology to explore the trade-offs between flooding and coastal erosion risks on the Norfolk coast.

Professor Hall and colleagues analysed the complex interactions between climatic and socio-economic change and coastal management policy, and for the first time quantified in economic terms, their impact on both flood risk and coastal erosion.

“By understanding some of the interconnected processes we start to appreciate that flood protection is not just about building the biggest dyke possible,” said Professor Richard Dawson, speaking to the Lloyd’s Science of Risk team. “There are other ways of working more subtly with nature and natural processes rather than trying to tackle nature head on and fighting it with a wall.”

Read more about the winners.


Dawson, R.J., Dickson, M.E., Nicholls, R.J., Hall, J.W., Walkden, M.J.A., Stansby, P., Mokrech, M., Richards, J., Zhou, J., Milligan, J., Jordan, A., Pearson, S., Rees, J., Bates, P., Koukoulas, S. and Watkinson, A. (2009) Integrated analysis of risks of coastal flooding and cliff erosion under scenarios of long term changeClimatic Change, 95(1-2): 249-288.