Breaking out of my cyanobacteria bubble to think about the bigger picture when it comes to extreme rainfall events.
I spent the last week roaming around the lake district fells, climbing the hills along old sheep tracks, battling fierce gales on the top of snow clad mountains and mainly getting wet. Earlier in the week we drove from Coniston over the kirkstone pass ahead of the arrival of storm Frank, anticipating that we may get cut off at Glenridding. A wise, but fortunately for the communities of Cumbria, an unnecessary move – Frank never quite made it. Good job because the river in Keswick was still raging and not far from the flood defences. It was amazing to see the height of the wall plus the glass panels on top of that; to think that this fierce river burst over this barricade is a little bit mind blowing. But then, standing on the top of Blencathra on new years day, you can see the intricate but bare mosaic of troughs and peaks that make up the lake district and from here you can see the torrents of water falling down from the hanging valleys, remnants of the past ice age. What is there on this mainly bare ground to stop the water gushing down? Are we going to continue to build these flood defences higher and higher? In the face of climate change, it looks like we will with storms like Desmond predicted to be 40% more likely. But is fighting a man made problem with a man made solution really the most effective way of battling flood waters?
What is significant about the loss of these upland trees? Tree root growth allows a greater absorption of water, reducing the speed of the flow to the rivers and so provides a natural flood defence against heavy rainfall events.
"The rain flashes off sheep pasture as if it were concrete, instantly causing floods downstream. Trees hold back the water and release it gradually, smoothing out the cycle of flood and drought" - George Monbiot, Guardian columnist, environmentalist and supporter of re-wildling.
A call then for re-wilding our uplands, back to peatlands and forests?
George Monbiot has been campaigning for re-wildling in the UK for some time, in a recent article in UK Hill Walking he answers some key question about re-wildling in light of the recent flood events.
In many places attempts to do this have already begun - in the video below some of my former colleagues, Liz Lewis-Reddy and Clive Faulkner from Montgomeryshire wildlife trust talk about the success of a pilot trial of the trust's living landscape project, the Pumlumon project, which aims to improve carbon and water storage by restoring biodiversity in the Welsh uplands. Clive talks of the simplicity behind this idea whilst Liz highlights the socio-economic issues that hinder the wider implementation of the scheme.
Reading the views of George Monbiot makes a strong case for re-wilding, but the economic cost benefit in not so easy to campaign as erecting strong, visible barrages. It can be hard too to convince people to change the landscape that we see as being normal but which definitely isn't natural. I'm definitely advocating investing money into conventional flood defences but alongside this there must be also investment in natural solutions that can buffer the response especially in the face of more and more extreme events being predicted.
I have managed to turn my rather unhealthy obsession with plankton in to my day job. Things don't get much better than this! This blog documents my PhD research and the plankton delights I encounter along the way.