Nowhere in Britain has escaped the wild weather of the past three months. October was marked by exceptional rainfall and the St Jude storm, November was dry but windy, then came the tidal surge on 5 December and the floods and storms of Christmas Eve and the New Year. There have been over 500 severe weather and flood warnings since October and there is no end in sight of high winds and heavy rainfall.
But while thousands of acres of farmland remains waterlogged and millions of people have had travel plans disrupted, flooding and storms are far from uniformly negative. It just depends on who you are and what you do …
The UK wind industry has had its best-ever period, setting daily, weekly and monthly records. Wind turbines generated 2.8m megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity for the National Grid in December – enough to power more than 5.7m homes – and wind has supplied 10% or more of Britain’s total electricity demand for homes since 1 December. In the week before Christmas, wind provided 13% of Britain’s total electricity needs and on 21 December, a record 17% of the nation’s total electricity demand was met by turbines.
Some of the increased wind power was because Britain had ramped up its capacity to generate wind power in 2013, but the exceptionally windy weather also helped, says industry body RenewableUK. Most turbines used to switch off automatically in strong winds but newer models cope much better, it says.
“We expect records to be set more frequently as extreme weather becomes more normal, and as giant new offshore windfarms are built and commissioned. Our target is to generate 15% of all energy from renewables by 2020. To do that we need to generate about 30% of UK electricity from wind. With six years to go, we are on target. This weather shows that wind power is working,” said a spokesman.
The heavy rains across Britain have left the water supply industry smiling. “The rainfall in December and early January has ensured that reservoir stocks are above average across almost all of the UK and groundwater levels have generally risen rapidly over the last six weeks. The water resources outlook for 2014 is therefore very healthy,” said Terry Marsh, hydrologist at the government’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).
UK Water, which represents all UK water companies, confidently predicted that there would be no water shortages this summer. “The ground water supplies are full, rivers are full and bills are very unlikely to rise because of shortages. All we need now is more reservoirs to catch more water for our growing population,” said a spokesman.
Floods and storms are natural phenomena and very important to our natural environment, say ecologists. “Small floods stimulate fish migration and clean river gravels of silt, while larger floods inundate floodplains, naturally enriching the soil with fertile silt, providing habitat for wading birds and spawning sites for fish. Even extreme floods play a crucial role in shaping our landscape and removing debris from our rivers; while they may destroy some habitats, they also create new ones,” said a CEH spokesman.
While strong winds and heavy rains can devastate animal habitats, most of Britain’s flora and fauna is adapted to wet and windy weather in winter months and some plants actually depend on strong winds to spread their seeds further afield. Burrowing animals like badgers, rabbits, foxes, stoats, weasels, rats, worms and mice are vulnerable to flooding but they breed best when soggy ground makes their holes easy to dig.