Parts of northern Britain have suffered Europe’s biggest increases in flooding since the 1960s, according to new research by a multinational team including engineers from the University of Bath.

The study, the largest of its kind to date, investigated the impact of a changing climate on flooding, by using river flow data from thousands of locations over a 50-year period. It showed that floods are becoming increasingly severe in north-west Europe, including the UK, but are decreasing in severity in southern and Eastern Europe.

Floods in northern England and southern Scotland rose by 11 per cent per decade during the period studied, from 1960 to 2010. The team of researchers, including Bath’s Dr Thomas Kjeldsen, say that the study provides the clearest evidence yet, at the European scale, of the link between climate change and flooding.

The study, published in the journal Nature, was led by the Vienna University of Technology and involved a team of research institutions in 24 European countries, and included Bath, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), and the University of Liverpool from the UK.

Link to climate change

The lead author, Professor Günter Blöschl of the Vienna University of Technology, says: "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?’. 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.”

Scientists have long suspected that human-induced climate change is having an impact on the magnitude of flood waters because a warmer atmosphere can store more water, although this is not the only factor leading to flood changes in a warming world. However, until now, the extent to which climate change affects the severity of floods across Europe has not been clear because previous studies have been on a smaller scale due to a lack of access to data from parts of the continent.

But, thanks to a large-scale European collaboration involving almost 50 scientists from 35 institutions in 24 countries, the new study has been able to draw upon a huge amount of data, with the researchers analysing records from 3,738 flood measurement stations across Europe from the period 1960 to 2010.

Jamie Hannaford of the UK‘s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, one of the scientists who was involved in the research, says: “This timely study adds to a growing body of evidence that shows that flood magnitude has increased in the UK over the last five decades, particularly in parts of northern and western Britain.

“We show this is part of a continent-wide pattern of changes in flooding which is in line with what we may expect in a warming world. This highlights the importance of long-term hydrological monitoring and the benefits of data sharing and collaboration at a European scale in order to better understand the mechanisms behind observed changes in flooding.”

Regional differences

The evaluation of data from the measurement stations over the 50-year period studied revealed trends in different regions of Europe.

In central and north-western Europe, floods are increasing because precipitation (rain, snow, sleet or hail) is increasing and soils are becoming wetter.

In southern Europe, on the other hand, flood levels are decreasing as climate change results in declining precipitation and the higher temperatures cause increased evaporation of water in the soil. However, in Mediterranean areas, for small rivers floods may be becoming larger due to more frequent thunderstorms and land management changes such as deforestation.

In Eastern Europe, flood levels are also decreasing – by up to 23 per cent in parts of Russia, for example – due to shallower snow packs in winter associated with the higher temperatures.

Future trends

If the trends in changing severity of flooding continue into the future, major increases in flood risk can be expected in many regions of Europe. The total annual bill from flood damage – estimated currently to be $100 billion worldwide – is continuing to rise, along with the devastating impact on communities. The researchers therefore advise policymakers to include their findings in their flood management strategies.

Dr Thomas Kjeldsen of the University of Bath, adds: “Incorporating the evidence of increasing flood risk into engineering design and general flood management would ensure we are better prepared for future changes – a point also raised in the Government’s National Flood Resilience Review.”