Natural disasters are catastrophic events that result from the Earth’s natural processes. Some even say they are nature’s way of warning us – noting that some disasters are actually exacerbated by man. The United Kingdom is no stranger to these, too. Natural disasters in UK are predominantly flooding and storms, though others like heatwaves and hurricanes can occur, too.
Natural disasters in UK
Floods happen quite often in the UK, so much that it is noted “one in six homes is at risk of flooding,” with flash, coastal and river floods being the most common.
Sudden heavy rainfall and storms caused by extreme weather conditions are the primary reasons flooding in the UK. Flash and river floods occur when there is sudden intense precipitation – the latter specifically occurring when rivers overflow. Coastal floods occurs when low-lying coastal land is flooded by seawater caused by heavy storms and extreme weather conditions that contribute to higher tide.
In a news report by the Independent on February 2020, storms were said to have inflicted a 7.7 billion damage on one-third of UK property. Flooding can get really extreme, too. In 2016, unprecedented rainfall in northeast Scotland caused its rivers, River Don and Ythan, to burst their banks – something that’s never happened in almost half a century.
To add, The Guardian reported on 21 October 2021 that Southern England experienced flooding after being hit by overnight heavy rain and strong wind from a storm approaching from France. The Essex fire service received more than 120 calls by 2:30 a.m., all reporting flood-related incidents. Just a day later, the Independent reported that two yellow weather warnings were issued around 4 a.m. in northeast Scotland after heavy rain and severe flooding forced residents to flee damaged properties and vehicles submerged in water.
Storms occur quite frequently in the UK and is one of the primary reasons for most floods. Storms happen occur when heavy rainfall is accompanied by lightning and thunder. Extreme storms can cause hazardous weather events like flash floods, lightning fires, hailstorms, strong winds and even tornadoes. Storms occur when warm, moist air rises and becomes cool air. When the air becomes cooler, it causes moisture to form (water vapour) and these become small water droplets. When this happens in large amounts, a storm can form.
Specific to the UK, its low pressure weather system makes it a breeding ground for storms. According to the UK Meteorological (Met) Office, low pressure weather systems bring cold wind and rain to the region. When this becomes intense, it turns into a storm. This happens because geographically, the UK sits where cold polar air from the north meets with the warmer tropical air from the south. This pathway also happens to occur along the boundary of the jet stream flows (narrow bands of strong winds that occur in the upper levels of the atmosphere). A greater difference between polar air and tropical air temperatures can cause stronger jet stream flows, which will in turn intensify low pressure systems, causing stronger winds and heavier rain.
In 1990, the Burns Day Storm that raged Britain on 25 January left the region in chaos. Children were killed in schools when the roofs collapsed and cars were being thrown off the roads. 47 people perished with at least half a million homes left without electricity. A total of two billion dollars’ worth of damages resulted. Unlike the 1987 storm that took people by surprise and killed 18 people and over 15 million trees, the Met Office managed to improve its storm warning system to prevent wide-scale devastation in 1990.
It is not uncommon to see 40-degree heatwaves in the UK during summertime. New Scientist reports that the UK has been experiencing an increase in extreme weather – with 2020 being the third warmest year on record. According to Reuters, heatwaves have cause a record 2,556 deaths in Britain in the summer of 2020 and maximum temperatures hit 34 degrees Celsius for six consecutive days in early August 2020.
In 2018, the British Isle experienced a 48-day heatwave between June to August when Scotland and North Ireland recorded temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. It caused widespread drought, crop failures, hosepipe bans and several wildfires. This was a result of the 2018 European heatwave that led to record-breaking temperature and wildfires in many parts of Europe.
It is important to note that while heatwaves occur naturally as an extreme weather event, over the years, its intensity and frequency is largely due to human-induced climate change. However, heatwaves are not unique to the UK. As global temperatures rise, heatwaves are occurring in many locations globally, as well. According to the Met Office, the average hottest day of the year has increased by 0.8 degree Celsius and warm spells have more than doubled in length from 5.3 days in 1961 to 1990 to 13.2 days in 2008 to 2017.
While not completely a natural disaster, a smog is a result of mankind’s hubris against nature. The National Geographic defines a smog as an “air pollution” that reduces visibility. The term was first coined in the early 1900s to describe a mix of smoke (from burning coal) and fog. Presently, most of the smog that occurs is photochemical smog – this happens when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides (found in ear exhaust, coal power plants and factory emissions) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs, found in gasoline, paints and cleaning solvents) in the atmosphere.
Smog is dangerous to all living things, the ground-level ozone components from the atmosphere can damage lung tissue, making smog especially dangerous for individuals with respiratory issues.
While no longer a common occurrence in the UK, the Great Smog of 1952 smog remains as one of the most devastating natural disasters in the history of England. On 4 December 1952, heavy smog hovered over London and persisted for five days, killing at least 4,000 people. These people died of breathing difficulties caused by the smog. It was also noted that an unusually high number of people died in their sleep when it happened. The smog was a result of industrial pollution and high-pressure weather conditions.
Hurricanes (also known as cyclones or typhoons) are one of the most powerful and destructive meteorological systems on earth. However, as hurricanes are unique to tropical climate conditions where sea temperatures must be higher than those found in UK waters, they do not typically happen in the region. That said, the UK is sometimes affected by “ex-hurricanes” that formed elsewhere and have moved to higher latitudes where the UK is located, according to the Met Office. This happens when a process called “extratropical transition” occurs and hurricanes change their primary energy source from warm sea surface temperatures to the clash of warm tropical and cold polar air (see section on Storms, above). These ex-hurricanes can still have the same characteristics and devastation as regular hurricanes.
One example in Hurricane Ophelia in 2017. It began as a category 2 hurricane on 6 October and progressively strengthened into a major hurricane after completing its transition into a extratropical cyclone before hitting landfall in Ireland. The region was hit with hurricane-force winds, killing three people and leaving over 22,000 without electricity. Several households in the UK also had its internet connection cut.
Earthquakes can be extremely devastating to life and property and are primarily caused by tectonic plate shifts that take place in the earth’s crust. Earthquakes are a rare occurrence in the UK, with its last one happening in 1931 measuring 6.1 magnitude and causing minor damages. In 1884, the Colchester earthquake killed several between and left over 1,200 buildings destroyed in Essex.
How to prepare for natural disasters
The key to surviving natural disasters is to plan and prepare for it. Which is why many nations have poured much of its resources to disaster warning systems and improving infrastructure to adapt to extreme weather conditions.
The UK government has detailed a list of resources and to-dos when preparing for emergency situations. Alternatively, the British Red Cross has its own resources on how to prepare for an emergency, too.
1. Stay in touch with updates of potential threats
The Met Office’s WeatherReady effort provides many resources on how to prepare for extreme weather conditions.
Check your local weather forecast and keep abreast on updates on weather warnings.
Read up on the Local Resilience Forums: Contact Details published by the Cabinet Office. These are contacts to various partners in the military, organisations, voluntary sectors who can provide aid and safety during emergencies.
Read about your area’s emergency plans to be prepared on what to do when disasters strikes. You can also identify the many roads that are priority gritting routes. Gritting routes refer to roads that are treated to ensure safe use during conditions of snow, ice and frost during wintertime.
2. Download the British Red Cross’ free Emergency app
Download the Emergency app to stay up-to-date on potential disaster threats and extreme weather conditions. Alternatively, its website possess a wealth of other free apps to help you prepare for an emergency.
3. Know your numbers
999 and 112: The national emergency response service in the UK. If a life is threatened, these two numbers will get you connected and an immediate response team will be sent to your aid. You may contact these two numbers if you’re in a life-threatening situation, medical or not.
111: For urgent medical problems that are not life-threatening. You will be connected to a medical professional who will then further advise/assess your condition and call for ambulance if needed.
101: For non-emergency contact to the police.
4. Get insured
Ensure that you have suitable insurance to protect not just yourself, but also your properties. The Association of British Insurers contains useful information on how to insure your home. It also provides advice on flooding insurance.
5. Have an emergency plan and prepare an emergency “grab bag”
Make emergency plans with your family and friends so that everyone is aware on what to do during an emergency. The West Sussex County Council has an example of a Household Emergency Plan you can download.
An emergency “grab bag” is an emergency kit that stores essential items for survival. The Cheshire Resilience Organisation has a complete list of recommended items to go into your emergency kit. Or, peruse the emergency kit list from the British Red Cross, too.
You can also heed the Environment Agency’s guidelines on how to flood-proof your home and make it resilient to flooding. For more information on how to prepare for floods, visit the British Red Cross.
6. Learn basic first aid
The British Red Cross provides quick step-by-step guides on basic first aid skills to perform on someone during an emergency.
How to cope after a natural disaster
Surviving a life-threatening event is a very distressing experience and should not be ignored. Feelings of fear, anxiety and even trauma can lead to mental health illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), survivor’s guilt and more.
Below are some organisations you can consult to receive post-disaster relief and support:
116 123: The Samaritans provide 24-hour emotional support to individuals who find themselves in distressing emotional situations.
0808 196 3651: If you do not wish to disclose your identity, call this number to be connected to the British Red Cross’ support team. (Operates 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.)
If you’ve been impacted financially, go here to seek financial support and advice from the British Red Cross.
If you’re finding missing family and friends due to a disaster or emergency, head here to seek support.
Natural disasters are distressing catastrophic events that happen regardless of human intervention. Even as the world progresses with various disaster-adapting systems, no amount of technological progress can prevent natural disasters. The best we can do is to prepare for it, and reduce casualties and fatalities as much as possible.