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 Swaledale Rescue services evacuating residents from flooded homes in the Huntington Road area of York in December 2015

UK to experience worst flooding in Europe, major study warns

Image credit: Andrew Calverley | Dreamstime.com

Floods are becoming more severe in parts of northern England and southern Scotland due to climate change, with the UK set to experience some of the worst river flooding in Europe in the coming years, according to a major collaborative study.

The extent of climate change on the severity of flood has been previously unclear due to the lack of data. However, along with research institutions from 24 other European countries including the University of Bath and University of Liverpool, researchers at the Vienna University of Technology have compiled a complete database on European flooding.

Researchers analysed records from 3,738 river flood measurement stations across Europe over five decades. The data collected showed clear regional variations of flooding – in north-western Europe, floods are becoming increasingly severe, while they are decreasing in severity in the south and east of the continent.

According to the research, north England and southern Scotland will be the worst affected areas in Europe if conditions remain the same, with an 11 per cent increase in river flood levels per decade. However, the data showed there was a 23 per cent decrease of river flood levels in Russia, for instance.

The study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that an increase in autumn and winter rainfall caused by climate change has led to these increases. In these areas, increased levels of precipitation are making soils wetter meaning they are unable to absorb excess water, according to the paper.

In southern Europe, the risk of flooding is falling as climate change is causing precipitation to fall while higher temperatures are drying out soils, meaning they can absorb more water. Some areas will see as much as a 23 per cent decline in the magnitude of flood events per decade.

The study also found that in the Mediterranean, small river floods may become larger due to more frequent thunderstorms and deforestation.

“For a long time, it has been assumed that climate change is having an impact on the magnitude of flood waters because a warmer atmosphere can store more water,” said lead researcher Professor Gunter Bloschl from the Vienna University of Technology. “However, this is not the only effect – things are more complicated.”

The study concluded that the data demonstrates the need to consider climate change impacts when designing flood management strategies.

“We already knew that climate change is shifting the timing of floods in a year, but the key question had been: does climate change also control the magnitude of flood events?” Bloschl said.

“Our study did, in fact, find there are consistent patterns of flood change across Europe and these are in line with predicted climate change impacts, such as a contrast between increasing severity of flooding in the north and decreases in the south.

“Processes differ across Europe – but the regional patterns all correspond well with predicted climate change impacts. This shows us that we are already in the midst of climate change,” he said.

Annual damage from flooding costs an estimated $100bn (£80bn) every year. This is expected to rise due to increased economic growth and urbanisation.

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the UK's Environment Agency, said: “Climate change means the threat of flooding and rate of coastal change will increase significantly.

“To prepare for this risk, as a nation we need to move from a strategy of protection and building higher flood defences to improving the resilience of our communities and our infrastructure, strengthening our ability to cope with flooding and coastal change when it does happen.

“Our new flood strategy sets out a long-term approach to tackling the effects of the climate emergency, as well as the actions we can take in the short-term. This includes a record £2.6bn investment we are making now to protect 300,000 homes from flooding and coastal erosion.”

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