‘Drought risk in the Anthropocene’ Online Science+ Meeting

‘Drought risk in the Anthropocene’ is a Royal Society Science+ meeting organised by Professor Jim Hall FREng, Associate Professor Jamie Hannaford and Professor Gabriele Hegerl FRS.

Taking place online on the 19th and 20th October 2021 the event is free to attend (advance registration essential).

Register for the event

Droughts and water scarcity jointly pose a substantial threat to the environment, agriculture, infrastructure, society and culture and their impact and prevalence are increasing driven by the climate crisis and increased water demand.

This Science+ meeting will explore scientific understanding of changing drought risk and examine drought impacts on the environment, people and the economy. Policy-makers, practitioners and scientists will discuss policy options for management of droughts in the future.

Speakers at the event include practitioners and researchers from across the world, making this a truly global event to discuss our adaptation to the Anthropocene in regards to drought and water scarcity.

More information about the event, the programme and registration details are available on the Royal Society’s website.

Droughts during 2018/2019 in the UK

A new paper on the 2018/2019 drought in the United Kingdom has been published in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal Weather

The hot summer of 2018 may be memorable for many and, as well as this period, the paper highlights the perhaps less widespread recognition of a longer period of dry conditions leading up to this heatwave, and a similarly protracted dry spell extending into late 2019 in some parts of the United Kingdom.

Read the open access paper

The paper documents the events in terms of their meteorological and hydrological nature, and assesses the varied impacts droughts had across the UK and touches on how the droughts in 2018/2019 compare with previous episodes.

Figure from the paper showing (a) Standardised Precipitation Index (SPI-1) for June 2018. Black areas indicate SPI less than -4.0. (b) Mean river flows June–July 2018.

The paper was supported by the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme which is operated jointly by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the British Geological Survey and the UKRI Drought and Water Scarcity Programme, via the ‘Historic Droughts’ project.

About Drought briefing note: Drought monitoring and early warning

A new About Drought briefing note: Drought monitoring and early warning: new developments to meet user needs has been released. The note looks at the monitoring, forecasting and early warning needs for different sectors, the key new tools and strategies for monitoring and forecasting droughts, and highlights the ways that sectors such as water companies, regulatory bodies and the agricultural sector have used these tools so far. The note concludes by presenting applications for potential future uses.

The UK, while typically regarded as a wet country, is vulnerable to drought, particularly in some areas of the south and east. There is, therefore, a need for systems that contribute to robust decision-making relating to drought risk. Such systems need to cater for a diversity of sectoral needs. Based on recent drought research, a new suite of tools and approaches have been developed, leading to some advances in early warning capability in the UK of which the briefing note seeks to highlight.

This is the third of a series of briefs to support improved decision making concerning droughts and water scarcity. Click below to read the briefing note.

Front cover of drought monitoring and early warning brief
Drought monitoring and early warning: new developments to meet user needs – the third of a series of About Drought Briefing notes

Educational Resources

There are a number of educational resources developed through the DRY project and About Drought programme which span the breadth of the curriculum. For more information visit the DRY Utility Learning pages.

KS2 – DRY: The Diary of a Water Superhero

A bright, engaging story book has been produced for use in primary schools, with accompanying teacher’s notes and is due for publication later this year (2019). Designed to inform children to become champions to change behaviour, ‘DRY: Diary of a Water Superhero’ follows the story of an ordinary schoolgirl who becomes a water hero during a drought in the UK. The thought-provoking storyline encourages class discussions on how we treat water and how we can all save water as well as including activities.

The book, its concept and storyline were co-produced by Prof Lindsey McEwen, Luci Gorell Barnes, Verity Jones, Sarah Whitehouse and Sara Williams as part of About Drought, with illustrations by Luci Gorell Barnes.

Front cover of the book, DRY: the water diary of a superhero
Front cover of the book, DRY: the water diary of a superhero

The e-book, DRY: Diary of a Water Superhero is available to read online in English and Welsh

The book is also free to download in both English and Welsh.

The writing team have also run a couple of webinars to introduce the DRY Primary book resource – one for ‘educators’ and another for ‘parents and carers’.

Teachers’ Notes which accompany the DRY Primary Book were also developed.

KS3&4 – All About Drought Geographical Association resources

The DRY and About Drought programme have collaborated with the Geographical Association to develop research-informed resources that promote awareness of UK drought among young people. This includes creative thinking about positive water behaviours at home and in school, and adaptation to future drought.

We have worked with educational developer, Gemma Mawdsley to develop six lesson plans and learning resources for Key Stages 3 and 4 which are available from the Geographical Association.

For older students: Water Futures

Water Futures is an interactive visualisation tool stringing together several different models, which allows users – including students under guidance – to explore how water resources move throughout London. Models in general allow researchers, engineers and decision makers to envision different possible scenarios or outcomes. The models used in this tool are from Thames Water, a weather model from the University of Bristol and a water resources model from the University of Oxford called the WATHNET model. Water Futures was developed by the MaRIUS project working with Thames21, a community project that aims to provide education, improve rivers and improve the quality of life of people in the community by enhancing waterway environments.

Conversation starters: Understanding ‘Hidden’ or ‘Embedded’ Water

When thinking about personal water use, it is important to differentiate between direct water use and use of ‘virtual’, hidden or ‘embedded’ water in the growing and processing of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the items we use in our daily lives. The DRY project used the ‘hidden water’ quiz as a ‘conversation opener’ to engage children and adults about water behaviours – as a way in to talking about experiences of dryness and drought.

          Food water challenge questions

          Food water challenge answers

          Food water challenge teachers notes

The DRY project found that this quiz was particularly popular with school teachers and those running scout and brownie groups.

For more information about these materials and many more produced by the DRY project please visit the DRY Utility.

Groundwater management during droughts and future prospects

A new publication has been released today which explores how our essential groundwater resources are managed during droughts, and against a backdrop of environmental change, what future priorities should be.

The work reports the outputs from a meeting over 50 hydrogeologists from water companies, regulators, consultancies and academia that was held by About Drought in July 2019 in Birmingham. The aim of the meeting was to consider current groundwater drought management practices and identity research needs.

Four key themes are discussed throughout the paper:

  • Joined up definitions of drought
  • Enhanced monitoring
  • Improved modelling of groundwater during droughts
  • Better information sharing

“Managing groundwater supplies subject to drought: perspectives on current status and future priorities from England (UK)” has been published in Hydrogeology Journal and is available to all now.

Historic Droughts: Using the past to inform the future

Lucy Barker (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) presents on a number of cutting edge aspects of drought science.

Climate change projections indicate that extreme events will increase in their frequency and severity in the future.  An improved understanding of the drought events of the past can inform current and future management. In this talk, Lucy demonstrates how reconstructed river flows have enabled consistent, national scale characterisation of historic hydrological droughts and how access to current and historic data can support ongoing drought monitoring activities.

The work originates from a number of projects including Historic Droughts and the About Drought programme and you can view the talk below.

This talk is part of the British Hydrological Society webinar series, “Future Hydrology in a Changing Environment”. You can view past webinars on their YouTube channel.

Experts from About Drought discuss the past few months remarkable weather

Experts from the About Drought project have given updates on the recent changeable weather we’ve been seeing in the UK and further afield.

The team at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) released a blog post which focused on the hydrological transformation following the wettest February on record, which soon turned into one of the driest springs on record. Low soil moisture and river flows at the end of May have resulted in impacts on agriculture and the environment, and heightened concerns over water resources over the longer term.

“There is now an increasing risk of reduced crop yields and potential water use restrictions.”

Katie Muchan, Hydrologist at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Find out more by visiting the UKCEH blog post which also highlights the UK Water Resources Portal, one of the outputs from About Drought.

Adding to the debate, Professor Len Shaffrey at the University of Reading contributed to a blog post exploring the reasons as to why we are seeing such changeable weather.

The article explores whether the persistent high-pressure “blocking” weather systems which bring clear, dry conditions for many days or weeks, are becoming more frequent. These systems are particularly synonymous with heatwaves and drought in summer and bitterly cold conditions in winter.

Len explains that changes in the Arctic, “might influence the frequency of blocking events”:

“The theories suggest that as the Arctic warms, changes in the strength and position of the northern hemisphere jet stream will allow blocking events to become more frequent.” 

Professor Len Shaffrey, professor of climate science at University of Reading

Find out more by visiting the Carbon Brief blog post.

Interested in the UK water resources situation?

Following the wettest February on record earlier this year, last month is set to be declared the driest May in England for 124 years with some water regions warning of potential drought conditions.

The UK Water Resources Portal allows anyone with an interest in current water resources or drought conditions to explore the data both nationally and locally. The portal makes use of very recently published river flow data from the Environment Agency and rainfall data from the Met Office to show the situation across the UK. Alongside historical data and standardised indices, the Portal allows users to put the current situation into a historical context.

Check out the UK Water Resources Portal

For help using the Portal we have created a YouTube User Guide

The UK Water Resources Portal is one of the outputs from About Drought project. More information and further outputs can be found in the About Drought Handbook.

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Hydrologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Early warning forecasts – a real success story!

“Since September 2018 we have been providing bespoke hydrological forecasts for the Environment Agency’s area teams based on their reasonable worst-case scenarios and stress test scenarios … it is a real success story.”

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Hydrologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

A key need addressed by About Drought has been improved access to early warning information, especially for hydrological forecasting. 

Since 2013 a Hydrological Outlook had been provided by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH)the Met Office and BGS, producing a static document that gives a 1-page summary for the UK as a whole, followed by regional and national information. But that did not allow users to access a forecast for the particular river in the UK that they were interested in. 

Under About Drought that has become possible. Our project IMPETUS aimed to improve drought forecasting for decision-makers, building on information gathered at a host of stakeholder workshops to establish current practices and their needs across water supply, health, power, agriculture, navigation and recreation. 

New insight into likely river flows 3 months ahead

It developed a new methodology of forecasting and the follow-on project ENDOWS gave researchers the opportunity to develop IMPETUS’ methods. Now an insight into hydrological conditions over the coming three months, with likely trajectories for flows in 300 rivers around the UK and groundwater levels is available.

Jamie Hannaford, ENDOWS’ Principal Investigator and Principal Hydrologist at UKCEH, says: “The science was done in IMPETUS. We tested the methods, validating them to see how reliable and accurate they are around the country and at different times of the year. 

“Then in ENDOWS we opened up the forecasts and operationalised that system to the extent that these hydrological forecasts are now available in the first few days of every month. 

Since the summer of 2018 we have worked with a very wide range of stakeholders, providing them with forecasts for the river catchments that are relevant and ensuring that they meet user needs. In last summer’s drought conditions when many stakeholders needed reliable information about what would happen next, they have told us that these forecasts were very useful.”

Bespoke forecasts for EA and Yorkshire Water

The forecasts have been provided to a wide range of users, including water companies, the Environment Agency (EA)Natural Resources Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the National Farmers’ Union, energy industry and the Canal & River Trust

Jamie adds: “Since September 2018 we have also been providing bespoke hydrological forecasts for the Environment Agency’s area teams based on their reasonable worst-case scenarios and stress test scenarios. They have been used internally and for National Drought Group briefings – it is a real success story.

“In the dry spell of Summer 2018 we started providing hydrological outlooks to Yorkshire Water who wanted to specifically look at the likelihood of reaching certain flow thresholds for their internal management, and we came up with a bespoke outlook for them. 

“These are just two examples that illustrate the benefit of having the extra ENDOWS knowledge exchange and synthesis funding for the programme. It has enabled the excellent science from IMPETUS to fulfil its potential, it gave researchers the time to hear directly from stakeholders how it could be used, to refine our outputs to make them user-friendly, for example through data visualisation. 

“We listened and as a result they were able to use them to access better information in a live situation in the 2018 drought. Users said they were pleased to see that this project produced such useful information, and that there is a pathway for this science to be continued after ENDOWS, through the Hydrological Outlook.”

Published October 2019

Dr Chris Lambert, Supply Demand Senior Technical Advisor, Thames Water

Putting the needs of stakeholders at the heart of drought research

“Climate change is decreasing water availability and this research has definitely demonstrated how that can cause significant problems in water treatment works and has given us a better understanding of different types of water resource options.”

Dr Chris Lambert, Supply Demand Senior Technical Advisor, Thames Water

From the initial proposal for funding in 2014 to the final event on November 7, 2019, About Drought was driven by the needs of the organisations, communities and people who would be relying on the results of its research. Their practical requirements, regulatory restrictions, governance and operational methods have informed the structure, design and accessibility of the datasets and tools.

Even at the stage of drafting the funding proposal Thames Water was invited to review it by MaRIUS’ project leader Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at Oxford University.

Matching the needs of water industry, NGOs and government

Chris Lambert, who is responsible for developing Thames Water’s Water Resource Management and Drought plans, joined the MaRIUS Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG). The aim of drawing this expert group from industry, NGOs and government to steer the project, liaising with MaRIUS’ social and natural scientists, was to ensure its outputs, including the ‘impacts dashboard’, matched the needs of the group in an evolving policy context. This early access proved crucial to the benefits Thames Water has gained.

Chris says: “Being on the SAG as well as being involved in the parts of the project that were relevant to Thames Water, gave me wider visibility of the total work of the project. I had a much better understanding of how we could use some of the research in developing Thames Water’s water supply strategy.

“It led to us commissioning some tailored, specific work that gave us a better insight into the reliability of future water resource development and then we fed into our 2019 Water Resource Management Plan.”

Algae growth impact on reservoirs and abstraction

Of particular interest was the work on algae growth in rivers and ‘drought coincidence’. As a result, Thames Water commissioned its own more detailed research on how projected algae growth could impact on extracting water from reservoirs in conditions of water scarcity or drought, slowing its passage through the filtering system and therefore the speed at which public demand for water could be met.

Thames Water also commissioned the development of a bespoke application from MaRIUS’s water quality research data, focusing on the catchments of the Severn and Thames, and the added likely impact of climate change on water availability.

There are further potential impacts of the timing and positioning of water abstraction, i.e. from the bottom of the river catchment as opposed to higher up, including for the health of the Severn and Thames catchments. The results led to a change in plans for the management regime of Thames Water’s reservoirs.

Climate change is decreasing water availability

Chris says: “If you look into future likely scenarios, climate change is decreasing water availability and this research has definitely demonstrated how that can cause significant problems in water treatment works and has given us a better understanding of different types of water resource options.

“Part of my role is to engage with academic bodies to understand the latest thinking and communicate it internally to our senior executives and board members and to our external stakeholders as well. Another part is ensuring we have effective communication for public and community consultation on our Water Management Plans for the more practical aspects of day-to-day water supply. Through my involvement with MaRIUS and About Drought I have found the events – such as the one-day water suppliers’ feedback workshop in Oxford – very useful in giving me visibility of what has been done and in supporting me in getting internal funding.

“I have been able to follow-up with UK-based speakers who have always been very responsive and my colleagues have also found them very helpful.

“I do think that it would be worthwhile continuing bringing this community together, even if it is just once a year, to keep us up to speed. The work isn’t going to stop just because About Drought has stopped.

“It’s important to ensure the good work that has been done to date continues and doesn’t dry up just because the funding dries up.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019