Is it the jet stream or the wrong kind of rain that’s causing our dreadful and damaging weather, asks Philip Bowern. Both seems to be the answer, according to the experts.
The weather is always news in Britain. But over the past 14 months, with a drought followed by a deluge rounded off with ice and snow and more rain, it has become more than just a topic of conversation at the bus stop or in the pub.
Farmland is so wet that in some areas only another drought will solve the problems; the impact from last year's poor harvest and difficult conditions for livestock will cut farm incomes by up to 50 per cent, the NFU is warning. Travel has been disrupted and millions lost to business while many householders are struggling to renew their insurance after flooding. And the tourist industry is anxiously looking ahead to what 2013 might bring and hoping the visitors will keep faith with a region that recently seems only to have been able to greet them with sheets of rain.
So what is going on? On the BBC's 1 Countryfile on Sunday night one weather expert suggested the melting ice caps had blurred the lines between the frozen north and the tropics, causing the jet stream to lose its definition and wander across the northern hemisphere, capturing Britain in prolonged periods of either warm dry weather or cold wet weather.
But it was the Environment Agency that found itself on the end of a severe backlash for its own explanation of what was going wrong. Its chairman Chris Smith said much of the flooding problems still facing the West were because of a 'new type' of rain.
West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said the comment from the former Labour minister – now Lord Smith – who chairs the Agency, was 'an insult' to those battling floods and calling for investment in flood defences and action on the Somerset Levels.
Lord Smith was speaking after attending a 60th anniversary memorial service to those who died in the 1953 floods of East Anglia, and said Britain was much better prepared now for such an event.
But he said that many of the problems facing places like the Somerset Levels were because of a changing climate and a new type of rain. He said: "Instead of rain sweeping in a curtain across the country, we are getting convective rain, which sits in one place and just dumps itself in a deluge over a long period of time. From the point of view of filling up the rivers and the drains, that is quite severe."
Lord Smith spoke as water levels across the region remain high, many parts of the Somerset Levels are still under water and river levels from the Cotswolds down to Dorset and westwards to Cornwall are just a few days of rain away from bursting their banks again, just nine weeks after they did twice in a fortnight at the end of November.
"We are off the hook, for the time being," said Lord Smith. "Groundwater levels are now, for much of the country, too high. If there was not another drop of rain for the whole of the rest of this year we would survive, but we would be seriously worried.
"Last year taught us that weather patterns are getting more extreme. If you'd said to me a decade ago that we'd have a year in which the first three months would be facing a serious prospect of very severe drought, but we'd then have nine months of the wettest period since records began, I'd have just said, 'No, that sort of extreme weather does not happen here in Britain.' Increasingly, it does.
"Virtually every weekend in June and July there was a major flooding event somewhere around the country. I think people everywhere began to recognise this is serious."
He added that he hoped the flooding problems of the past 12 months – since a drought was called in many parts of the country last spring – have acted as a wake-up call for the Government. "I think it will help to focus minds. It has probably helped to make sure that flood defence is up there along with transport," he added.
But Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said the Environment Agency needed to do its job better, or it should be taken away.
"The comment that it's the wrong type of rain, or a new type of rain is frankly an insult to the intelligence of people who have struggled with flooding in the past few months. It's like a railway company complaining of the wrong type of leaves.
"What the EA staff do on the ground is great, but in strategic flood defence terms it is not fit for purpose and it is failing. Everyone agrees that the Parrett and the Tone need to be dredged, and there is a long list of pumps and pumping stations and equipment that need upgrading and improving, but it isn't being done."
Whether its a different kind of rain or due to the meandering jet stream – or a bit of both – it is increasingly clear weather patterns are changing.
Perhaps it will – as Mr Liddell-Grainger suggests – focus minds on how we deal with that change.