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

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