Environment Minister Therese Coffey raised more than a few eyebrows yesterday when she appeared to blame flooding from Storm Babet on rain coming from the wrong direction.
During questioning by MPs, the Cabinet minister suggested Britain was less prepared for recent rains as they came from the east rather than the west.
She explained that forecasters are “very good” at predicting showers coming from the Atlantic, but added: “That was rain coming from the other side and we don’t have quite as much experience with that.”
“As a result, our accuracy in predicting where such heavy rain would fall was not to the same extent as if it had been,” Ms Coffey told the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
So can rain really come from the “wrong direction”? MailOnline has spoken to a number of scientists who dispute this explanation.
Environment Minister Therese Coffey raised more than a few eyebrows yesterday when she appeared to blame flooding from Storm Babet on rain coming from the wrong direction
Richard Allan, professor of climate science at the University of Reading, said weather forecast models “do not care which direction the rain comes from”.
He told MailOnline: “It is unusual for the drier eastern side of the UK to experience such intense and sustained flooding, but our weather forecasts are packed with the most comprehensive observations and physics that don’t care which direction it comes from “Rain is coming” and so we were able to make valuable and high quality predictions.’
Lee Chapman, professor of climate resilience at the University of Birmingham, agreed that “the weather forecast doesn’t care” whether the rain comes from the east or west.
He added: “It is true that the east of the UK receives significantly less rainfall than other parts of the UK.”
“However, this does not affect the intensity or duration of rainfall received during an event.”
“The fact that Brechin, one of the worst affected places by Babet, has already been flooded on several occasions confirms that there is no reason why the east should be less prepared than other parts of the country.”
Professor Allan explained that global warming was partly to blame for the flooding being so bad.
‘[This] “Moisture levels in the air are increasing, making heavy rain events even more intense,” he said.
Professor Liz Bentley, CEO of the Royal Meteorological Society, said the UK’s weather was becoming “more unsettled and intense than it was three or four decades ago”.
She added: “We have also seen an increase in rainfall, particularly heavy rainfall, which can lead to flash flooding, which is another impact of climate change in the UK.”
Edward Hanna, professor of climate science at the University of Lincoln, said: “The bottom line is that with climate change, we can expect (and are already experiencing) extreme heavy rainfall events across the country and better preparation is needed.”
He told MailOnline: “Last week’s storm was not unprecedented.”
“We have already seen other storms or low-pressure systems where the rain moved into parts of eastern and central England from the east or south-east. Particularly memorable, for example, were the extreme rainfall in Sheffield and Hull and the catastrophic flood impact in June 2007.”
“Typically the eastern sides of England and Scotland are relatively protected from the prevailing rain-bearing weather systems coming from the Atlantic, but this is not always true as the weather systems stall or take a different trajectory.”
A total of 13 areas broke their daily rainfall records for October last week, while reports of flooding to the Environment Agency reached their highest level since 2015/16
More than 300 flood warnings were issued and hundreds of people were left homeless, with around 1,250 properties in England flooded
Ms Coffey’s statement also sparked an angry response from the Liberal Democrats, who said she should “get her act together” and “stop blaming everyone else for her mistakes”.
However, it is true that the western parts of the UK tend to have more rainfall than the east, as well as the north rather than the south.
Richard Washington, professor of climate science at the University of Oxford, expressed more sympathy for the cabinet minister’s reasoning.
“I can understand what the Environment Secretary said,” he told MailOnline.
“It’s not that the storm wasn’t predicted – it’s that the planning and positioning of assets to deal with extreme weather is generally geared towards the more common conditions we face.” And rightly so.
“Our rainy and windy weather usually comes from the west, usually associated with low pressure systems moving from west to east.”
“Babet also traveled from west to east but was centered directly over England and this changed wind and weather patterns.”
Areas where heavy rainfall is common include the north west of England – particularly the Lake District in Cumbria and the western slopes of the Pennines – and west and mid Wales – particularly the mountainous Snowdonia region in the north.
Parts of Northern Ireland and southwest England – mainly the higher areas of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor – are also receiving a lot of rain.
Ms Coffey, who was previously deputy prime minister, told MPs a “rapid review” would be carried out to assess the handling of the impact of Storm Babet
The graphic above shows how the jet stream works and where it is between seasons
The Met Office explained why this was: “The prevailing warm, moist westerly winds mean the west of the UK is more likely to receive rainfall from Atlantic weather systems.”
“These typically move from west to east across the UK and as they do so the amount of rainfall they deposit decreases.”
“This is because the mountains to the north and west of the UK allow the prevailing westerly winds to rise, which cools the air and consequently promotes cloud and rain formation in these locations.”
The jet stream – a fast-moving band of air high in the atmosphere – is also responsible for steering weather systems from the Atlantic towards the UK.
It has a warm side in the south and a cold side in the north and can have a big impact on what weather we experience.
At least seven people are believed to have died in the carnage caused by Storm Babet.
A total of 13 areas broke their daily precipitation records for October last week. while rFlood reports to the Environment Agency reached their highest level since 2015/16.
More than 300 flood warnings were issued and hundreds of people were left homeless, with around 1,250 properties in England flooded.
Ms Coffey, who was previously deputy prime minister, told MPs a “rapid review” would be carried out to assess the handling of the impact of Storm Babet.
She said it was harder to predict where resources would be needed because of the direction the devastating rain came from.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman, responded to her comments: “This is a new low for an environment secretary who can’t help but say or do the wrong thing.”
“It would be almost comical for Therese Coffey to blame the wind for the government’s failure to protect homes from flooding if so many had not suffered because of her incompetence.”
Why is the British weather so changeable? Britain is “unique” because FIVE air masses above it are fighting for dominance
One minute it’s warm and sunny, the next it’s raining. Sometimes the British weather can be so changeable that it’s difficult to keep up.
Even last month, after a largely benign summer, it caused another surprise by bringing a September heatwave that was abruptly halted by a thunderstorm and more heavy rain.
What weather will we get? There are five main air masses that compete against each other over the UK. These include Polar Maritime, Arctic Maritime, Polar Continental, Tropical Continental and Tropical Maritime. A sixth air mass, known as the returning Polar Maritime, is also affecting the United Kingdom
But why is it so variable and tends to change from day to day? Or even, much to the frustration of those who forgot their coat hour after hour?
And has climate change affected this?
MailOnline spoke to several meteorologists about what makes Britain’s weather so “unique”, as one put it, and whether it is comparable in other countries around the world.
Read more here.