Floods are becoming more frequent and more severe due to the impacts of climate change. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so rainfall events are becoming more intense with more rain falling in short, sharp downpours. Historical changes to our land and water courses such as draining moors and farm land, and straightening rivers also means our natural systems are less able to absorb and store water than they used to be. This means that when it rains, water quickly sheets off land, causing rivers to run high and fast, which can be very damaging. Planting trees and buffer strips along river banks, managing land and soils so that it absorbs and stores water, and putting ponds and leaky dams in place can all help to slow the flow of flood water, reducing the damage it causes and extending the life and standard of protection offered by existing flood defences.
Floods are becoming more common, and population growth means more people are exposed to flood risk than before. In recent years, storms in winter and summer have caused devastating floods across large areas of the UK, including Yorkshire. Millions of pounds of damage have been caused to homes, infrastructure and agriculture. Flood events also damage our watercourses and wildlife by eroding riverbanks, spreading invasive species and washing pollutants from land and roads into rivers.
Despite being thought of as a wet and rainy county, Yorkshire can be vulnerable to droughts and heatwaves, and has experienced severe droughts in 1995/96, 2003, 2012, 2018 and 2022. Droughts are an extended period of below average rainfall lasting several months or even years. Drought can cause severe impacts for farmer’s crops and livestock, as well as causing extensive environmental damage, such as wildfires which can destroy acres of precious habitat and farmland. The impacts of drought can be made worse by how land is, or has been, managed. Historic changes to land use, such as urbanisation, moorland drainage, and overgrazing has reduced the amount of water that can be stored in the catchment, meaning that it can be more vulnerable to drought and has less of a buffer against extreme events.
Drought coupled with hot weather results in increased public demand for drinking water as people water their gardens, fill paddling pools and take more frequent showers. Public drinking water supply in Yorkshire is mainly sourced from reservoirs and rivers. During drought conditions, public drinking water supply is prioritised meaning that there can be less water available in rivers for wildlife. The Environment Agency have a licensing system to control how much, and when, water can be taken from rivers. They aim to balance the needs of public drinking water supply for people and businesses whilst still making sure rivers and other wetlands support a good ecology. We can all help by using water wisely and not wasting this precious resource. Climate change means that we have already seen an increase in the number of hot days, and the risk of drought is increasing as the planet warms. The Met Office predicts we can expect a summers like 2018 or 2022 every other year by the 2050s.