Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Decades not years - An historical perspective on UK droughts

Our latest Monthly Hydrological Summary for the UK has just been published prompting me to take a look back through the archives at how droughts have affected us in the past.
As regular blog readers know, we run the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme* which gives our scientists a unique perspective of how the hydrological cycle operates across the country. We’ve published reports analysing every major drought episode since the 1975-76 drought which was, at the time, considered the most severe experienced across much of the UK. Using data from the National Water Archive our staff also carry out analysis of all major historical droughts in England and Wales since instrumented records began. One of the publications resulting from this research is a 2007 paper in the journal Weather (free access) titled ‘Major droughts in England and Wales, 1800–2006.’

A typical drought image

Skimming through the Weather paper I was intrigued to find that the longest UK drought episode in recent times lasted 20 years(!), when the ‘Long Drought’ of 1890-1910 led to “significant water supply problems” and “major and sustained groundwater impact” - including a period in London’s East End when a 73-day sequence of rainless days was reported! The paper states that “Although punctuated by several notably wet interludes, the 1890–1910 period includes the most sustained drought conditions captured in the instrumented record” and goes on to say, “A defining characteristic of the ‘Long Drought’ is the long sequences of very dry winters, especially in the English Lowlands.”

February 2012 river flows - from the
latest Monthly Hydrological Summary

I’ve also found another interesting perspective on historical droughts in a 2008 discussion paper on the History and Policy website. Written by historians Dr Vanessa Taylor and Professor Frank Trentmann ‘Hosepipes, history and a sustainable future’ states that “Droughts have been a constant feature of modern life”, and goes on to suggest that “the history of droughts in the UK reveals a mismatch between consumers' willingness to accept drought-time economies and their unwillingness to reduce consumption in the long term.”
Water companies and regulators are rightly worried about how the dry weather will impact the UK over the next few months, but taking an historical perspective we should perhaps spare a thought for those citizens of Victorian and Edwardian times who had to endure decades rather than years of drought!

Useful links
The Weather paper - Terry Marsh, Gwyneth Cole and Rob Wilby (2007) Major droughts in England and Wales, 1800–2006. Weather, Volume 62, Issue 4, Article first published online: 3 APR 2007
Hosepipes, history and a sustainable future by Vanessa Taylor and Frank Trentmann. History and Policy website
National Hydrological Monitoring Programme - Occasional Reports, including reports on the following drought events: 1975 - 76; 1984; 1988 - 1992; 2003; 2004 - 2006.
Our standard answer to 'What is a drought?' - the simple answer being "droughts mean different things to different people"

Key information from the latest monthly hydrological summary for the UK, covering the month of February 2012 can be read here.

A pdf copy of the full 12-page summary can be downloaded from this link
If you wish to reproduce figures from the summary please respect the copyright credits contained within the document.

And finally please
call us if you have queries. We'll try and help!

The National Hydrological Monitoring Programme

*The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology jointly operates the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme (for the UK) in conjunction with the British Geological Survey. NHMP scientists produce the UK Monthly Hydrological Summary which assesses rainfall, river flows, groundwater and reservoir levels. They also operate the UK’s National River Flow archive. The NHMP also has a remit to analyse major flood and drought events in the UK and analyse long term trends in UK hydrological data.

Posted by Barnaby Smith

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