In February, the UK was hit by a series of storms in quick succession – Storms Dudley, Eunice, and Franklin struck within a period of six days – and saw record wind speeds, heavy rainfall, and flooding. The impacts of these storms were severe: infrastructure was damaged, thousands of trees were felled, over a million homes were left without power, and transport services were severely disrupted.
Red and amber weather warnings were issued across much of the UK, meaning there was a risk to life, and four people were killed as a result of Storm Eunice. Red weather warnings in the UK are currently rare, typically occurring every two to three years. But do rising global temperatures mean we will see more of them, along with more frequent and severe winter storms?
Climate scientists say that with current climate modelling capability, it is difficult to ascertain whether the recent storms, and in fact any individual weather events, were directly caused by climate change.
Dr Friederike Otto, a lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London, said: “Quite often the question posed is whether an event is because of climate change or not. But it’s just not a yes or no question. Climate change can be one of the causes, and it can make events worse. But it is never the only cause.”
The effects of climate change on wind speeds, in particular, are not yet well known. In fact, some models suggest that winds will decrease, because of the decreasing equator-to-pole temperature gradient resulting from Arctic warming.
Richard Allan, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading, said: “Once-in-a-decade storms like Eunice are certain to batter the British Isles in the future but there is no compelling evidence that they will become more frequent or potent in terms of wind speeds.”
However, a recent study does suggest that severe storms like Eunice with a “sting jet” in their tail are set to become more frequent. Sting jets are narrow bands of very intense winds that can travel at over 100mph. They are often a feature of the most intense storms, and while usually short-lived, lasting only three to four hours, their high wind speeds mean they have the potential for a great deal of destruction.
Colin Manning, a Newcastle University research associate currently based at the Met Office, said: “We expect a warmer and moister world to create the conditions required for such severe storms to form more frequently.” A warmer and moister world also means heavier rainfall and rising sea levels, both of which worsen the effects of storms.
Dr Otto said: “The damages of winter storms have gotten worse because of human-caused climate change for two reasons: one, the rainfall associated with these winter storms has become more intense, and many studies link this clearly to climate change; and two, because of sea-level rise, storm surges are higher and thus more damaging than they would otherwise be.”
Therefore, climate change means we may well see a rise in severe weather warnings: not linked to high wind speeds but to heavy rainfall and flooding, and the damages that come in their wake.
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