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Wednesday 26 June 2019

Ophelia was a taste of our climate's coming revenge

Coastal towns and villages at higher risk of future flooding

Jim Long, the principal of Douglas Community School in Cork, surveys the damage to the gym after Hurricane Ophelia ripped off the roof Photo: Mark Condren
Jim Long, the principal of Douglas Community School in Cork, surveys the damage to the gym after Hurricane Ophelia ripped off the roof Photo: Mark Condren
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Rising sea levels and an increasing number of utterly devastating storm surges will leave Irish coastal towns and villages become increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

In many ways, the turbulent weather of 2017 foreshadows what is on the horizon for Ireland.

The most extreme weather event this year was Storm Ophelia, the hurricane that whipped across the Atlantic and caused hundreds of million of euro worth of damage on these shores.

The highest wind recorded during Ophelia was detailed by Fastnet Rock lighthouse, where a gust of 190kmh was measured.

Three people - Michael Pyke, Clare O'Neill and Fintan Goss - were tragically killed by falling tree branches and debris during the storm.

Advances in meteorological tracking, which informed the Met Éireann red alert, combined with the State's national emergency co-ordination centre, have been credited with ensuring that the number of fatalities was not higher.

Waves break over the wall at the Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Photo: Collins
Waves break over the wall at the Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Photo: Collins

Schools and offices were shut down, shopping centres and pubs were also evacuated.

The Irish Weather Buoy Network recorded an individual wave off Waterford which reached a startling 17.81 metres, which is equivalent to a six-storey building.

While Ophelia was unusual, however, it was not unprecedented. Hurricane Debbie battered the country in September 1961 and resulted in 12 deaths.

According to meteorologists, while the number of storms looks set to decrease in the coming years, their severity will drastically increase.

According to Met Éireann's Gerald Fleming, this presents a real problem.

"The less frequently they hit, then the less prepared we are for them," he said.

"If you get them every day, you are ready. It's considered normal. But if you're not ready, the impact can be much, much worse."

One of the biggest threats facing Ireland is increasing sea levels, which are a consequence of global warming.

Temperatures have increased by 1C from pre-industrial levels and are projected to increase by a further 1.5-4.5C by 2100.

This increase in temperature will result in the sea levels rising by between 0.5 and 1 metre.

As a result, coastal erosion will escalate and make seaside cities and towns like Cork, Wexford and Clontarf more susceptible to flood damage.

"If you add storm resurge on to a sea-level rise, it means that coastal vulnerability is a big issue for Ireland, especially as we are an island nation" Séamus Walsh, head of climatology and Observations Division at Met Éireann, said.

According to Professor John Fitzgerald, of the Climate Change Advisory Council, economically it may become impossible to protect everyone.

"The OPW and local authorities will have to prioritise what areas are worth fortifying and which are not. For example, Cork is liable to flood and is densely populated.

"Therefore, the State has a responsibility to protect it but they can't protect everyone. If one isolated house is located on a flood plain, then the responsibility lies with the individual."

In the long term, this could affect migration and settlement patterns in Ireland.

Donegal suffered this year's worst flooding after the county was hit by a series of thunderstorms and a deluge of rainfall during the summer.

On August 22, Malin Head station recorded 77.2mm rainfall, the station's wettest August and summer day in 62 years, with 63mm falling within a six-hour period. This resulted in calamitous flash flooding.

A hundred people had to be rescued from vehicles caught in flood water, and 200 homes were affected and roads were closed.

At the time, Met Éireann described it as a "once-in-100-years" extreme weather event.

However, according to Gerald Fleming, "downpours of short duration and high-intensity rainfall will become more commonplace in the future, especially in the winter months."

Unless proper precautionary measures are in place, this could result in more instances of flash floods. While we can expect an increase in rainfall in winter, overall rain patterns look set to decrease by 10pc in the next 50 years. This will coincide with record high temperatures in the summer months. While this sounds positive, it could have negative implications.

"This will lead to increased drought and pressure on water supplies, which will affect agriculture and grain production," Mr Walsh said.

It will also increase the number of heatstroke admissions to hospitals, placing further strain on services.

The warmer climate will also see the growing season extend by up to 40 days in the next 50 years as the temperature of the Earth's topography rises.

This year's summer months, however, were far from sun-soaked. Summer was dull, with cool, wet weather and high levels of rainfall.

There were brief spells of sunshine but, according to meteorologist John Eagleton, "We never got a decent run of beach days."

Spring was mild, breezy and changeable; all mean air temperatures across the country were above their long-term average (LTA) for the season.

Following the tumultuous autumn weather, the country experienced polar lows in late November and heavy snowfall in December.

A Status Orange low-temperature warning for all of Ireland was issued on December 10 as temperatures plummeted to -6.6C in Dublin.

A fleet of 335 snow ploughs and 347 salt spreaders distributed 6,000 tonnes of salt across roads during the big freeze.

Met Éireann has introduced a number of initiatives over the years to increase public engagement.

These include naming our storms, so people can identify and remember them, and the introduction of the traffic-light warning method.

This simple warning system enables people to recognise the level of severity that they are facing.

This month, it launched a 10-year strategic plan to make the country more responsive to weather and climate risks.

"Spending money on climate change and preventative measures and infrastructures that will benefit society 20 or 30 years down the road is a difficult thing for governments to do," Mr Fleming said.

"But it is important to invest now in order to protect the next generation."

Irish Independent

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