Oddly, almost eerily, quiet today. For nights over the last week the house has rocked with angry sound. First Gertrude then Henry came rattling at the windows, hammering on the doors, playing merry hell round the chimneys. The latest storms have blown over but surely Imogen will not be far behind?
We’ve been fairly racing through the alphabet since the Met Office and its Irish counterpart Met Eireann decided to name our storms in an effort to raise public awareness of severe weather. Perhaps it works and keeps us on the look out. At any rate, like the lighthouse, it seems to invite the storms. We had barely finished with Gertrude – and Eva, Frank and Desmond’s dirty work was still spread across sodden Cumbria – when Henry arrived; the eighth storm to batter its way across Ireland, North West England and Scotland since Abigail hit us in November.
Abigail? Apparently we have social media to thank for the odd assortment of girl-boy names that seem too mild for the wild damage left in the wake of floods and gales. The sound of wind and rain takes on a different menace when you risk losing homes and livelihoods to Clodagh or Eva.
A shocking study last year found that storms with female names tend to be more deadly because people assume they will be less dangerous, and therefore take fewer precautions. In reality, a hurricane or storm’s name, and the gender of it, has no bearing on its ferocity. ITV Anglia
Listening to Henry howling round the house, pelting windows with sleet for extra measure, I find myself thinking of the hydrologist I met a few years ago on an interesting assignment for WWF Scotland. Richard Johnson took me to the source of the River Devon high in the Ochils. Scotland’s smallest county. Clackmannanshire, had been chosen to demonstrate how natural flood management could relieve pressure on urban waterways and drainage systems. Instead of building concrete walls downstream, we might ‘slow the flow’ upstream, restoring flood plains and planting riverbanks with trees to soak up the overflow – allowing flood waters to seep slowly back through ‘leaky barriers’ rather than rampaging across hard surfaces and into houses built where they should not be.
That was in 2006 when Scotland was leading the way in a progressive response to the European Water Framework Directive requiring change to flood management. It’s well worth a read, Slowing the Flow, and still seems progressive in 2016 though I am in no position to comment on how far across Scotland the Clackmannanshire example has travelled.
But I mention Richard Johnson because I remember him saying how angry he felt when he attended local community meetings where people had suffered flood damage and he heard elderly people describing sleepless nights when it started to rain hard. Angry because of foolish decisions made by planners and developers.
Gales bring fear and anger too. Not least because as extreme weather becomes the new normal, homes and businesses become uninsurable; jobs, life savings and lives are lost. So far I have not experienced anything so cruel but on Monday morning, getting ready to drive to work, we watched with a mix of awe and anxiety as wind raced across the surface of our onstream pond. Henry was blowing through an unseasonably mild atmosphere. The stream, brown with topsoil, was swollen with rapidly melting snow.
It’s the speed of a flood that takes you by surprise. One minute we are loading bags into the back of the car. The next we are racing against an unstoppable torrent as the pond bursts its banks and cuts a new river round the house, rolling and rollicking towards a hollow two fields away. In no time at all a new pond is forming and we just make it out before the lane becomes unpassable.
The last time this happened – ironically the same year I was working on the sustainable flood management report – the flood gouged a hole in the road and shifted part of the garden downstream (it’s an old story on my blog). The cottage was spared because there’s plenty of wetland and woodland to soak up the overflow but even that huge sponge struggles when a month’s rain falls overnight.
That was what inspired Ray’s inventive flood defences and so far they have done the trick. By next morning the road was clear – washed clean in fact – and the new river had returned to the pond.
But these are strange times. By the following night all eyes are on a heavenly spectacle as stratospheric nacreous clouds light up the sky with an iridescent glow. The Met Office explains the phenomenon may be linked with the stormy weather. While I join an excited crowd posting pictures of the undeniably beautiful sunset display I can’t help wondering if we are witnessing another dramatic shift in climate change. Is Mother Nature adding her warning to the friendly storm hashtags we are sharing on social media?