United Kingdom Extreme Weather Event

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2015-2016 UK Floods

December 2015 in the UK was the second wettest December there since records began. A complete lack of frost, and a temperature that was 4.1 degrees above average, resulted in huge amounts of rainfall being dropped within a 24-hour window. Large swathes of the north of England and Scotland received on average 5.9 inches of rainfall – with some areas of Cumbria even recording 13.4 inches. Gusts of up to 115 mph were frequent, and two more storms quickly followed: both depositing even heavier rainfall on already-saturated landscapes. Multiple rivers broke their banks, a bridge collapsed and gas pipes were ruptured.  Over 16,000 homes and businesses were flooded, many more suffered prolonged power-cuts, and dozens of rescue missions had to be undertaken by boat to save stranded residents.

It is clear that these storms, and the subsequent flooding, were weather events far outside the normal reaches of the British climate, and it is highly probable that it was influenced by climate change. Climate change has caused a rise in global temperatures that has resulted in the air within the Pacific and Atlantic jet streams being warmer. This in turn has enabled the air streams to hold more water vapor and thus increase the likelihood of extreme rainfall and flooding when they hit land. Dame Silgo, chief scientist at the Met Office, stated that just ‘from a basic physical understanding of weather systems, it is entirely plausible that climate change has exacerbated what has been a period of very wet and stormy weather.’

The sitting Conservative government received a lot of criticism for not heeding previous flood warnings and for cutting flood defense spending when it was most needed. In 2014, the Met Office advised the government that Britain was in line for more heavy rainfall events due to climate change, and that funding cuts would leave 240,000 households at greater risk of flood damage within 20 years. Nevertheless, with deficit reduction being prioritized over addressing climate change-related risks, the promised £400m per year for flood defense spending was cut sharply each year: £360m in 2010-11, to less than £270m in 2012-13. Funding was, on average, 37% lower than the funds provided by the previous government.

Following the storms, a raft of policies was announced to mitigate the immediate impacts, and to ensure long-term flood protection. Government figures state that over £200 million has been spent in extra investment for storm recovery. Local authorities were provided with £500 for each household affected, and £2,500 for each business. Households were provided with grants of up to £5,000 to install flood barriers, replace doors and windows with water-resistant alternatives and to move electricity sockets to safer levels. Flood affected communities would be exempt from Council Tax and business rate bills while they were out of their properties, and farmers could get grants of up to £20,000 to help restore damaged agricultural land. £40 million was pledged to help repair flood-damaged roads and bridges, and an additional £10 million was given to the Environmental Agency to repair and improve flood defenses. The government agreed to match every donation made by the public to support flood efforts up to £2 million, as well as pledging to invest a total of £2.3 billion in flood defenses over the next 6 years.

Opposition parties criticized this reaction as a ‘sticking-plaster response’, noting that the proposals mainly included funding that was already destined for such projects, and that the total earmarked was not enough to fully prepare for, and adapt to, future climate-change related extreme weather events.

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