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As freak weather gets more frequent unusual may become norm

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 30, 2013

  • Work begins to rebuild Tarr Steps in February, since which they have been weather-damaged again. Above left: Significant snowfall on Exmoor. Below: The main railway line at a flooded Cowley Bridge Junction, Exeter

Comments (2) The storms we have faced this autumn pale into insignificance when compared to the terrifying weather event which hit the Philippines, but now we hear of freak storms in the USA. Martin Hesp has been considering what climate change could mean for our landscapes.

On a single day recently, this newspaper reported how the ancient clapper bridge Tarr Steps had been breached by flash floods for a second time in a year, and also how a 100 metre section of the South West Coast Path at Basset's Cove, Portreath, near Redruth, had fallen into the sea.

In the same week we reported how a team of scientists from Plymouth University were gearing up for a "winter of big storms" with more flooding and landslides expected.

We might not face the terrifying typhoons which hit some areas of the planet but we are, it seems, a region under siege. Some people may doubt there is any such thing as climate-change – or question the reasons why it might be happening – but it is a fact that we are experiencing more and more freak weather events.

Meteorologists have recorded three big storms hitting our shores so far this autumn and the Plymouth University research team told us they had been looking into the effects of such weather since numerous sections of the region's coastal path had been washed away, massive cliff falls had closed beaches and last summer the entire coastline was declared to be at risk of landslide.

Our landscapes are being damaged and altered by such events. We cannot change what the weather does, but we can ask how we will adapt to the fact that the countryside in all its many guises will be shaped and changed by heavy rainfall and flooding.

Do we carry on trying to save and rebuild frail ancient monuments that are under threat? Will there come a time when we give up repairing damaged rights-of-way even though some, like our much-celebrated coast path, attract a fortune in tourist millions?

It was only recently the WMN carried a report stating walkers could once again enjoy some of the most spectacular sections of the coast path after sections washed away in last year's floods were re-routed. Devon County Council has recently opened new routes to re-connect the path at Old Beer Road in Seaton and at Ivy Cove Cottages near Lannacombe in South Devon. Work is also on-going to establish a new link between Hope Cove and Thurlestone Sands, near Salcombe.

Similar post-storm works have also been going on across our national parks… In the first six months of this year alone, Exmoor National Park Authority's (ENPA) in-house team fixed and re-graded 10,850 square metres of local footpaths, cleared 682 fallen trees, made 164 new or replacement wooden signs, put up 70 new signposts, built 67 new gates and replaced 14 river bridges.

Much of this work had to be carried out because of last winter's floods – and without the herculean efforts of the small team, many popular honeypot sites like the paths upstream from Tarr Steps would simply have been unvisitable or impassable.

Now the team will be out mending again. But for how much longer can such authorities, which have undergone some drastic financial cutbacks, carry on essential repair work? During a recent walk near Tarr Steps I put the question to ENPA's chief executive Dr Nigel Stone.

"I guess, if it continues the way it has, there may come a point where we begin to struggle in a way that people would notice," he replied. "At the moment we've reduced as much as we can. But we have got to a point which we did notice last winter.

"Because we had so much adverse weather – the floods, the snow, the rain and the wind – the combination of those things led to falling trees, blockages, lost paths, eroding paths, lost bridges – all of that. A few years ago we could have turned all that around within six months – but now it will still be some time before we get back to where we were."

Our conversation was back in August – now there have been more storm events and the national park's most famous landmark has been damaged again – so the WMN asked what, if anything, can be done to save Tarr Steps for the long-term future.

Historic structures are overseen by English Heritage (EA), and a spokesman told us: "We have a system in place to deal with the displacement of the stones due to falling branches and strong currents in bad weather. The stones have been carefully numbered and there is a catch net which has been placed downstream to ensure they don't travel too far.

"Due to the construction of the bridge, it would not be feasible to fix the stones to the supports as this would cause more damage in the long term."

An ENPA spokesman said: "Permission would not be granted to make Tarr Steps into a permanent obstruction [which is what it would be if cemented together] because then it would have to be a proper bridge, probably arched, with handrails. Compare this [a couple of hundred thousand?] to the relatively small price of £10,000 for the huge repair earlier this year – which hopefully, even with the more extreme weather, won't happen often."

Local authorities such as national parks are taking climate change seriously. Here's what Mike Nendick, of Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), had to say: "Our management plan, which ended in 2012, and its replacement, which has recently been adopted by the authority, recognises climate change as a factor influencing for example habitats and wildlife as well as heritage assets.

"It also recognises the importance of Dartmoor in the management of water flow," said Mr Nendick. "The challenge of climate change runs throughout the plan."

How about other organisations who own, or look after, huge tracts of countryside – are they taking the subject of climate change seriously?

The National Trust's natural environment manager, Alex Raeder, said: "We believe there are ways to adapt and build resilience – whether that be making sure the guttering on our historic houses has sufficient capacity for extreme rainfall or considering carefully how the planting schemes in National Trust gardens are resilient to future changes in climate.

"For the South West, the coast is perhaps the biggest area of challenge. Our preference is to work with the grain of nature where we can, thinking carefully about the future shape of the coast and making space to roll back coastal footpaths where this may be needed in the future."

But it is not all doom and gloom, according to Mr Raeder: "In some of the region's wilder landscapes we believe there can also be 'win-wins' in building more resilience by thinking about water, drought and flooding at a bigger landscape scale.

"Supporting natural processes – such as slowing runoff from steep hillsides – holds the potential to ameliorate extreme events at the same time as improving the resilience of the environment to wider changes to the climate.

"There are wider challenges too, such as plant pests and diseases, as the zones in which they are found are shifting with the climate, particularly into the South West. Good plant biosecurity measures and constant vigilance has become much more important to us," said Mr Raeder.

"We're lucky to have some of the nation's leading practical experts on this working in our teams in the region to guide our approach, but behind the headline grabbing impacts of extreme events this is one of the region's less well known, yet significant, climate change challenges we face."

The problems faced by this region pale into insignificance when compared to the giant storm which hit the Philippines or the tornados which this week caused destruction in the United States, and yet we know all too well what damage wild weather can do to our delicate environments.

Being prepared is one thing, but if freak weather events continue to hit us with more frequency we might have to begin to accept that the unusual can become the norm.

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  • VeraBedwell  |  November 30 2013, 7:49PM

    We have had extreme weather for thousands of years, the only difference now is we have an extreme loving press to excite themselves about every snowflake and raindrop. Wery few people read the press these days without an extreme pinch of salt.

  • bullocks400  |  November 30 2013, 7:25PM

    So, we have to consider the 'unusual can become the norm'. Given this point, how are we supposed to be impressed with the constant talk of 'freak weather events'. Surely normal is a mix of different things, as average is a mix of ups and downs. Seems to me that this is another dramatised non story. I guess the fable of man made climate change has to be repeated over and over, just in case the ordinary sensible public get a chance to question the myth. We get lots of weather here in the SW, some helpful and lots a damn nuisance. The stuff that is difficult to work with, or around, isn't made any easier by knowing that a large and ever expanding number of people are, effectively, gloating. These are the ones who are making more money and power for themselves from the whole scam of 'exteme weather events' and climate change. On a lighter note, can anyone tell me why a rain storm has become a 'rainfall event'? More of the brain washing. Come on people, start questioning the rubbish we're constantly being fed.