Miranda Foster, Senior Hydrologist, Yorkshire Water

UK Drought Portal put to the test in 2018 drought

“Some of this data is quite technical, having it visualised so clearly is very useful because it is so easy to share.”

Miranda Foster, Senior Hydrologist, Yorkshire Water
Miranda Foster
Miranda Foster, Senior Hydrologist, Yorkshire Water

Miranda Foster, a hydrologist with Yorkshire Water for 18 years, was just one of the programme’s water supply stakeholders who was able to use the UK Drought Portal to provide current, reliable and easy-to-access data in the prolonged dry spell in 2018. 

The UK Drought Portal is a near real-time tool allowing users to explore up-to-date data and monitor current regional dry weather status across the UK. The tool shows the relative magnitude of drought events within river basins and individual catchments, based on rainfall deficits over durations ranging from 1 to 24 months. 

It has been developed by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) as part of the About Drought research programme, using drought indicator datasets developed by the Historic Droughts project and DrIVER, which was also NERC-funded. Miranda says: “The Drought Portal gives us a spatial as well as a temporal picture and it confirms our data in a very quick and easy way. We have our own drought severity calculations for single sites but to have it shown for catchments is very useful. The visuals are easy to convey to others in Yorkshire Water and we used some of it to support our drought permit applications to look at the severity and extent of how conditions developed over time.” 

Providing early warning signs of drought

The Drought Portal is interactive and has been designed to support monitoring of water supply conditions and provide early warning signs of drought, exploring past drought characteristics in specific areas of interest as well as time frames, based on rainfall. Users can view Standard Precipitation Indexes (SPI), an indicator of drought that is widely used internationally for drought monitoring, by geographical area, including by postcode, and by time frame, going back to 1961. 

“Some of this data is quite technical,” says Miranda. “Having it visualised so clearly is very useful because it is so easy to share.”

The Drought Portal also contributes to CEH’s monthly Hydrological Outlooks and to the National River Flow Archive, with Yorkshire Water able to commission bespoke outputs. Miranda adds: “The bespoke river flow forecasts presenting data with a red, amber and green alert format as opposed to just tables and percentages has been very good and I have been able to feed that information to those who need it. 

Providing clear evidence to support drought permits

“For instance, last summer [2018] was the first time I have been involved in applying for drought permits. For quite a few years the focus had been on flooding because droughts were relatively unusual but as shown in 2017-18 they are still very much an issue and with climate change they are likely to be more frequent.” 

Yorkshire Water successfully applied for two drought permits to increase annual river abstraction limits in preparation for another dry winter and in anticipation of high winter demands in 2018-19, using evidence from the Drought Portal and many other analyses. These permits were granted but were not implemented as winter demands were not high and there was some recovery in reservoir stocks. 

Miranda says: “It has been very interesting to work with About Drought. We have used maps from the Drought Portal and our local Environment Agency colleagues have said they found these a useful clear depiction of the severity and extent of drought.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Experiences and Stories

Story gathering and storytelling have been strong threads through the programme, stitching together humanities and science within and across work streams. These collaborations have been so successful that they have changed permanently the approach of some of our scientists and resulted in successful spin-off collaborations.

As well as welcoming ENDOWS researchers into their communities, embracing catchment Local Action Groups (LAGs), monitoring water scarcity and collecting data samples, some of these collaborators have been enthusiastic attendees of our About Drought Showcase conference in Birmingham and our Drought & Water Scarcity Conference in Oxford in March 2019, as well as project events such as the final DRY Project Conference in July 2019.

DRY Project in particular nurtured a high level of community engagement ranging from community performances to the production of the song, ‘A River Is A Snake’ by folk singer and songwriter Sharron Kraus.

These experiences and stories have been captured in cartoons, videos and blogs on the DRY website.

Videos & podcasts

Hear what it was like to live through the 1976 drought from the people who were there, take in the dramatic experiences of firefighters battling wildfires in the UK and watch videos that break down the misconceptions about water shortage and drought in the UK, featuring people on the frontline of its impacts today.

Communications experts on the About Drought programme have produced a series of informative and evocative videos and podcasts which bring the research to life for all ages and audiences.

Podcasts & audio interviews reliving past droughts

Scammenden Dam, 1995, © Nick Wilding
Scammenden Dam, 1995, © Nick Wilding

Dr Rebecca Pearce has sourced a series of fascinating audio interviews with people who experienced the 1976 drought first-hand from a wide range of aspects – for instance, did you know that in 1976 firefighters tackled moorland blazes wearing plastic uniform over-trousers that were melting in the heat? These are available as podcasts and will also be published in written form.

These can be accessed via the Historic Drought Inventory which includes a large collection of corresponding news reports and drought records as well as the audio recordings. About Drought has presented the ‘Who’d Have Thought That…’ series on our own channel on the SoundCloud platform.

Rebecca says: “The experiences of droughts by people in the UK can vary considerably. From being barely noticed to being so severe they create long-lasting memories that can be recalled in an instant. This is because although water is essential for life and we’d all notice if we did not have a reasonable level of access to it for drinking, cooking, and hygiene, we are fortunate to have benefited from many years of progress in water engineering, which has resulted in our generally having security of supply.”

Myth-busting videos

A real challenge to communicating the urgent need to change our behaviour around water use – whether you are a water company, managing a waterway or creating policy – is the inbuilt misconception in the UK that it’s always wet and rainy, that drought is only an issue in other parts of the world.

About Drought series of Drought Myth Busting videos debunks popular misconceptions – such as ‘Droughts Only Happen In Summer’ and ‘Britain Is Wet: Droughts Don’t Happen Here’ – through interviews on location with people on the frontline of water shortages, such as father and daughter dairy farmers David and Fran Herdman as well as About Drought experts. These are available on the About Drought YouTube channel.

About Drought science news video documentaries

About Drought’s ‘audience first’ approach extended to an innovative ‘news documentary’ style of short films and podcasts, produced by national broadcast journalists to capture the interest of the general public as well as our stakeholders, particularly those tasked with drought communications.

We engaged news journalists to film on location and carry out interviews at our About Drought Showcase in March 2018 and the MaRIUS Workshop in 2017. We asked them to take the same approach as they would to a TV news assignment, picking out the angles they found most newsworthy and selecting their own interviewees and questions.

About Drought webinars

A rich resource of presentations from across MaRIUS events, featuring other elements of the About Drought research programme, are available to view on the MaRIUS YouTube channel.

Webinars covering the impact of drought on groundwater, water efficiency, historic hydrological droughts, drought forecasting, hydrological modelling of drought and low flows, a guide to outputs from the programme, community modelling, drought communications, water quality modelling in the River Trent, reconstructed flow data, and the hydrological status in the UK in August 2018, are available to view on YouTube. DRY’s research capturing communities’ own stories of water, shortages and drought, creating a story bank, developing a song from people’s experiences, storytelling for research and promoting water efficient behaviour also features in a series of videos published on YouTube.

Drought and woodlands

Woodland modelling undertaken by Dr Pam Berry and colleagues at the University of Oxford has explored in the impact of climate change on the distribution of key woodland species in Great Britain. The resultant datasets map changes in the drought vulnerability for 12 tree species and for two periods, the 2030s and the 2080s. Six categories of potential natural vegetation are also mapped for (i) the present, (ii) the 2030s and (iii) the 2080s. The modelling shows potential changes in leaf area, net primary productivity and net ecosystem productivity.   A spatial explorer interface is in development, which allows users to explore these maps interactively, including zooming into their particular location, and allows the user to swipe between two periods for a given location. If you would like to be included as a beta tester for the explorer, please email nevil.quinn@uwe.ac.uk.

Impact of drought on agricultural and horticultural crops, and their response to different climate futures

Harper Adams University has undertaken an extensive review of the impact of drought on crops grown in the UK and their response to different climate futures. This also includes a consolidation of insights for protected and horticultural crops. This report is available in draft and more focussed crop factsheets are in production.

Drought impacts explorer

Screenshot of the Beta version of the Drought impacts explorer

As part of the Historic Droughts project, researchers at Cranfield University developed an inventory of qualitative drought data related to UK agriculture based on an extensive review from two weekly farming magazines in the UK, Farmer’s Weekly and Farmers Guardian for the period 1975-2018. The resultant inventory contains over 2500 records with information on the start and end dates of the event and their location to characterise the temporal and spatial extents of the cited event, together with the text describing the driver, impact or response in relation to that event. The inventory is available to download as a csv file from the UK Data Service.

This dataset is also currently being translated in to a drought impacts explorer, which allows the user to view these records spatially and to search and save according to various criteria. If you would like to be involved in beta testing of the explorer please contact nevil.quinn@uwe.ac.uk. An early draft of the explorer is available online.