Extreme rainfall a ‘taster’ of future effects of climate change

Human activity makes extreme weather more likely, says Maynooth professor

On the Liffey quays in Dublin: “These events are still unlikely but we’re making them more likely,” said Prof Thorne. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

On the Liffey quays in Dublin: “These events are still unlikely but we’re making them more likely,” said Prof Thorne. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Ireland’s recent heavy rainfall is “a taster” of the changes that will be brought by climate change, according to a top academic, who blamed rising temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

Research carried out following flooding in Ireland and the UK in 2013 found that human activity had made extreme weather events “six to seven times more lightly”, said Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University.

“These events are still unlikely but we’re making them more likely,” said Prof Thorne. “If you build on a flood plain you’re setting yourself up to either instigate expensive flood defences or be flooded at some point in the future.

“If we are going to continue to allow people to build and live on flood plains then we must adapt,” said Prof Thorne, who heads the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit (Icarus) at Maynooth.

Meanwhile, a colleague, Dr Conor Murphy urged the Government to refrain from knee-jerk reactions, but it should also accelerate the installation of flood-relief protections.

Irish people need to learn to live with flooding, he said: “Floods are a natural process, they’re going to happen. (The question is) how can we use lands in different ways.”

Future weather patterns remain uncertain, he continued, though he adds that the extreme rainfall levels witnessed in recent days could become a more common occurrence.

“Climate change is not going to proceed as a smooth change. We will experience it through extreme events. Learning the lessons will increase our capacity to deal with future climate change.”

Meanwhile, Dr Murphy warned of the long-term psychological effects flood damage can have on people, particularly children. “We think up-front about the immediate impacts, but there are other impacts that go beyond that.

Children suffer anxiety afterwards: “That’s not captured in the costs we associate with flood damage. It can affect people’s sense of home and sense of place,” he said.

The Government’s proposed new flood warning system is welcome, he said, since longer-range forecasting would give people the time to respond and evacuate quickly and efficiently.

Meanwhile, Damien Owens of Engineers Ireland said recently-completed flood relief works have protected places that were previously prone to flooding from new disasters.

“Clonmel, Fermoy, Mallow, they were all prone to flooding and that’s been alleviated,” said Mr Owens. “In Bandon there were works scheduled and they were underway.”

The Office of Public Works’ European Union-ordered flood risk assessment is central to long-term planning: “At least there’s maps now to show where’s prone to flood plains,” he said. We know now the areas that are prone to risk.”