1 July 2011
As the UK floods of recent years have proved — water can be a hugely destructive force. But floods can be incredibly difficult to predict, principally because they are usually dependent on a combination of factors. Which is precisely why the Met Office and Environment Agency have combined their expertise to form the Flood Forecasting Centre.
Over the last few years, flooding has become increasingly common in England and Wales. But thanks to the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC), more and more disasters have been avoided. Set up in April 2009 by the Met Office and Environment Agency, the FFC was formed in response to the Pitt Review's recommendations for the two organisations to work more closely together - itself a response to the summer floods of 2007.
The Centre, where Met Office and Environment Agency staff work under one roof, has three key objectives: One - to provide emergency services and other responder organisations with flooding advice. Two - to communicate more effectively and deliver a clear message about flooding. And three - to bring new flood forecasting into operation as quickly as possible.
"The philosophy of the centre revolves around closer collaboration," explains Paul Davies, Chief Hydrometeorologist at the FFC. "We're combining the Met Office's rainfall and weather knowledge with the Environment Agency's hydrology and response skills to provide better flooding information and longer lead-time advice to emergency responders."
"We're combining the Met Office's rainfall and weather knowledge with the Environment Agency's hydrology and response skills to provide better flooding information and longer lead-time advice to emergency responders."
The Cumbrian Floods of November 2009 are an excellent example of this united approach. Working together, the team at the FFC was able to predict extreme rainfall early, work out its impact and issue the highest level alerts well in advance. This gave the emergency services and other parties enough chance to prepare for the floods before they happened. The relevant information was issued through Flood Guidance Statements, which cover coastal flooding, tidal flooding and extreme rainfall. They offer responders a clear five-day outlook of the risk of flooding.
"We've really focused on getting the communication right," Paul explains, "it's no good just telling responders there's going to be 250 mm of rainfall in an hour, they need to know what this means and what effect it is going to have."
Another important tool provided by the FFC is the Extreme Rainfall Alert, or ERA. The alerts look at factors that could lead to surface water flooding such as the capacity of drains, rainfall thresholds and the probability of extreme rainfall breaching those thresholds. Surface water flooding is notoriously hard to predict - especially in urban areas where heavy rainfall can saturate the ground and form pools of water.
The FFC has reduced the time between predicting rainfall and identifying when surface water flooding is a risk - leading to more timely Flood Guidance Statements. But there is still a long way to go before a full surface-water flood warning service is set up.
"With this sort of flooding we're dealing with minute lead-times and very specific variations in location - right down to individual streets and even houses," Paul explains. "Offering predictions accurate enough for people to really take action on the ground is a huge challenge."
But the FCC is working on it - developing its skills, science and communication. They're training FFC staff in both Met Office and Environment Agency disciplines to create a workforce of hydrometeorologists, equipped with a thorough understanding of the entire water cycle. They're developing a new grid-to-grid model - a forecasting tool that shows the risk of flooding on a national level. And they're working closely with the responder community to make sure they are providing the right information in the best way possible.
What's more, the successful development of the FFC has triggered discussions about further collaboration between the two agencies. "We've learnt from each others' ways of working and improved the flood warning service in England and Wales, which is great. But the FFC has also made people in both organisations think, 'If we can build this brilliant centre what else can we do?'" Paul concludes. "For me, it's a hugely exciting place to work right now. The possibilities are endless."
Flood Forecasting Centre
Did you know?
- Over 5 million people in England and Wales live and work in properties that are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea.
- The Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC) is a joint Met Office and Environment Agency service to provide early, integrated flood warnings.
- In the summer floods of 2007, two-thirds of properties suffered from surface water flooding, not river flooding.
- The summer floods of 2007 saw over 55,000 homes and businesses flooded, over 1,000 people rescued and the cumulative claims to insurance companies estimated at £3 billion.
- In its first three months of operation, the FFC received more than 200 requests from responder organisations to sign up for the daily Flood Guidance Statement and around 1,000 registrations for the web service.
- The FFC also provides a number of weather services to the Environment Agency including heavy rainfall and strong-wind warnings as well as the UK coastal monitoring and forecasting service.