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January 6, 2017

December 2015 will not be forgotten for many years, not least by the people that have still not returned to their homes, but thankfully while we had named storms in December 2016, nothing so severe.

Apart from the rain and storm Desmond in particular, the winter of 2015/16 was the third warmest for the UK since 1910 and the warmest for England & Wales. Rainfall totals for the winter varied from less than 150mm across parts of East Anglia to more than 1m across upland areas in the north and west; Capel Curig (Gwynedd) recorded over 2m of rain during the winter and nearly 2.8m (106% of the annual average) in only four months (November to February). The spring was overall mostly unremarkable, with temperature and rainfall overall very close to average, but it was within the ten sunniest springs in the historical record in Scotland. The summer began with a wet June, with July and the first half of August characterised by changeable weather, although rainfall amounts were often small in the south. There was a short but marked heatwave in the third week of July – that was the summer; and the second half of August was more settled, and hot at times, particularly in East Anglia and the south-east. Autumn brought a notably warm September, with unusually high temperatures for the time of year in south-east England, while October was very dry and often quiet, and it was again an exceptionally sunny month in north-west Scotland. Of note and of importance to water resources, autumn rainfall totals were below normal over most of the UK, particularly in Scotland.

So What?

I accept the weather was not the most remarkable thing about 2016, but it remained variable and significant in terms of warmth, and a dry autumn/winter. Dry autumns and winters are harbingers of drought so keep an eye on the later winter and spring rainfall and the national groundwater level data. It would be wrong of me not to mention Brexit. Whether Exit or Remain you have to agree that the June vote brought about change and will continue to do so for some considerable time. While Brexit won’t change the weather it does and will change the regulatory climate. The focus on different environmental priorities has already changed in subtle ways and when we start thinking about how practically environmental regulation will be effected in the UK the changes will be less subtle. What we will see of that in 2017 is anyone’s guess – including probably the cabinet, but we will be watching carefully and interpreting where and when we can.

Also of great concern to us is the apparent “distrust” of experts that has developed during 2016. The real natural world has a tendency not to religiously follow rules. It follows principals, but just when you think you have demonstrated that a rule works, it throws a spanner in the works. Experts in their field learn this and learn to understand risk by thinking about, evaluating and if possible quantifying probabilities. Weather variability is just one example of why 100% certainty can never be given and most importantly should never be sought, in applied earth and environmental sciences. However, experts can and must give considered assessment of risk within the context of the question being posed and the impacts that may be encountered. Only in this way will we, as experts, be able to support a forward thinking, innovative and progressive country within a highly variable natural and political world.

Prediction for 2017

My prediction for 2016 was “it will be an unsettled year, in terms of the weather, politics and policy…as for the weather, watch out for a cold spell in the late winter, a wet spring, but a hot, dry summer before a lashing in the autumn and winter 2016-17 – a sell out for sledges and salt.”

Perhaps I should hang up my forecaster’s seaweed! There’s still time to need the sledges and salt, but I’m not going to be stocking up.

I think that 2017 might best be summed up as “unpredictable”! If anything the weather is perhaps the easiest to predict. Let’s go for a settled spring, dry, overcast but warm. We must be on for a hot summer, but that will follow rain at the end of spring and a stormy late summer/early autumn. Given the clear warning signs in annual weather, I think next winter will be similar to this one, but a bit wetter – we’ll need the rain by then.

From a regulatory point of view, I think that there will be some breath holding until March, and then a flurry of activity. The focus of that activity is the unpredictable bit!

Otherwise, may I take this opportunity to wish you and yours all the very best for 2017 and suggest that you hold on tight…it could be a bumpy ride.


James Dodds

January 2017

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