Building resilience

Collecting rain in a water butt or raintank keeps water out of the sewer.

Collecting rain in a water butt or raintank keeps water out of the sewer.

While investing in renewables and sucking CO2 from the atmosphere can help mitigate some 
of the effects of climate change, it’s likely the planet will continue to warm. Hotter summers and wetter winters will bring with them new challenges and opportunities, and it’s vital that the UK prepares for and adapts to these changes. The UK Climate Resilience programme, a collaboration between UKRI and the Met Office, brings together climatologists, social scientists, biologists, engineers and researchers from every background imaginable to help in this effort.

Building flood resilience

February 2020 was the wettest February on record for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A succession of Atlantic storms (Ciara, Dennis and Jorge) brought with them heavy rainfall and flooding to parts of Yorkshire, Wales and the Midlands.

In November too, rivers in South Yorkshire and north Derbyshire burst their banks after an entire month’s worth of rain fell in just 24 hours. Roads and rail lines were closed, people were stranded, hundreds of properties were flooded, and one woman lost her life.

Scientists predict that ‘extreme’ events such as these will become increasingly common as our climate warms; so what needs to be done to protect communities from more flooding in the future?

According to Liz Sharp, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield, ordinary people and communities can play a huge role in protecting their own neighbourhood simply by collecting rain in a water butt or raintank, a process known as rainwater harvesting (RWH).

“In the countryside, rain simply soaks into the ground, or puddles and then evaporates. However in urban areas concrete streets and tiled roofs direct heavy rain flow straight into the sewer,” says Sharp.

“Unfortunately, sewers may not be big enough to cope with the increased load, leading to localised flooding and sewage polluting rivers.”

Collecting rain in a water butt or raintank keeps water out of the sewer, or at least slows down the flow. The collected rainwater can then be repurposed for watering the garden, or even flushing the loo. Options range from simple manually emptied water butts, to SMART raintanks that automatically release stored water when a storm is forecast. This is important, because for water butts to help in the case of heavy rain, they need to be empty when the rain starts.

However until now there has been no data on how feasible or acceptable such a scheme would be to the public. After all, it could be annoying if you were saving up water for your own personal use, and then it was emptied without your permission.

As part of the Mobilising Citizens for Adaptation (MOCA) project, Dr Sharp and other researchers from the University of Sheffield interviewed residents living in two suburbs of Hull, a city where 8,600 homes were flooded in 2007, and which remains at high risk. The researchers also trialled water butts on public buildings in the area.

“The aim was to see whether people would consider using water butts to protect downstream communities from flooding, and the overwhelming answer was yes,” says Sharp.

“Hull is in a basin, and all the rain that comes into the area has to be pumped out to keep the city dry. If there is really heavy rain, like there was in 2007, slowing the flow into the system could be instrumental in protecting at risk communities.”

The team are now working with The Living with Water Partnership, a collaboration between the Environment Agency, Hull City Council, the East Riding of Yorkshire Council and Yorkshire Water to install up to 100 water butts in local communities.

Protecting crops and agriculture

As well as increasing the frequency and severity of floods, climate change will also have a huge impact on future food production in the UK. Around 70% (17.5 million hectares) of UK land area is farmed, with 37% of this used to grow crops. 

In the short term, global warming may actually benefit some crops due to longer growing seasons and higher temperatures. For example, the UK now has a burgeoning wine sector that is winning international acclaim and awards. As the climate warms, winemakers are opening new vineyards and planting more grape varieties; in fact vineyards now cover around 2,500 hectares, an increase of 246% on 2004 levels.

However, weather and growing season conditions fluctuate from year to year, meaning that yields and grape quality vary significantly. While an exceptionally hot and dry 2018 led to a record harvest, in certain years such as 2012, some English vineyards harvested no grapes at all.

Early frosts, in particular, can kill off grapes before they have had a chance to grow. The uncertainty surrounding future climate conditions puts growers at risk, and limits investment in the sector.

“Despite the narrative of opportunity that surrounds English and Welsh wine, UK grape and wine producers typically view climate change with significant concern,” says Kate Gannon, a researcher leading the project, based at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, LSE.

“Thanks to warmer summers, commercially popular grape varieties can now be grown in the UK. However high levels of rainfall can still negatively affect vine growth and berry quality and quantity, and spring air frosts present a critical threat to developing buds and shoots.”

To solve this problem, climatologists, wine sector specialists and social scientists are collaborating on the CREWS-UK project, which will take advantage of the most up to date climate projections produced by the UK’s Met Office to provide growers and investors with the information they need to make business decisions. For example, by helping growers choose the best sites and soils to avoid frost risk, as well as which grape varieties to plant, which farming technologies to use and which styles of wine to make.

However, in the longer-term, a changing climate is likely to threaten crop production, due in large part to decreased rainfall and water availability. While summer 2018 was a bumper year for UK wine growers, the drought had a devastating impact on other crop yields.

Advances in earth observation from satellites and data science mean that a huge amount of data is available to help farmers and land managers adapt to climate change; however the data is often hard to access or difficult to understand.

Working to change this is Professor Richard Pywell, who heads up CROP-NET, a project that is working with the farming industry to develop a UK wide service to predict climate change impacts on the yields of major crops and grass growth.

“So far we have worked with over 50 farming industry and policy stakeholders to co-design a fully functioning demonstrator, allowing users to explore the impacts of the latest climate change projections on crop yields for their own farms,” says Pywell.

“At the same time, our social scientists have interviewed 30 stakeholders to explore the impacts of extreme weather and climate change on farm businesses and policy, and how such a predictive tool could help them prepare and adapt to climate change.”

Helping society’s most vulnerable

Unfortunately the people who stand to suffer the most from climate change are society’s most vulnerable, especially the elderly and those living with underlying health conditions. In summer 2018, four consecutive heat waves led to 863 excess deaths in people aged over 65.

Elderly people living in care homes are particularly at risk, as many residential homes were not built to withstand high temperatures. A lack of effective guidelines about what to do during heatwaves can also exacerbate the problem.

The Climacare project aims to change this by understanding the factors that lead to high indoor temperatures in care homes. So far researchers have monitored the summertime conditions in five different care settings in London, and conducted surveys with residents, frontline care staff and care home managers about their comfort levels. The team will now develop a number of strategies that care home workers can adopt to protect vulnerable residents from  heat stress.

UK Climate Resilience Programme

The UK Climate Resilience Programme is jointly led by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Met Office with Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) taking UKRI lead on behalf of Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).