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Somerset Floods

Green pastures rolling to the horizon. Small creeks meandering through meadows. These images are often what come to mind when we think of the picturesque countryside. The Somerset Levels in South West England are a perfect embodiment of this countryside image. Being a low-lying wetland and coastal plain, it's also prone to flooding. Today we'll dive into the case study of the Somerset Floods of 2014. What caused it? How many deaths were there? Read on to find out more.

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Green pastures rolling to the horizon. Small creeks meandering through meadows. These images are often what come to mind when we think of the picturesque countryside. The Somerset Levels in South West England are a perfect embodiment of this countryside image. Being a low-lying wetland and coastal plain, it's also prone to flooding. Today we'll dive into the case study of the Somerset Floods of 2014. What caused it? How many deaths were there? Read on to find out more.

Somerset Levels floods

The Somerset Levels consist of a coastal plain and wetland. A coastal plain is a flat area of land right next to sea coastlines. Wetlands are areas naturally flooded with water and are major habitats for lots of species of plants and animals. For years, wetlands were branded as unhealthy swamps, prone to diseases and needing to be drained for better uses. Today, ecologists understand wetlands to be a critical part of an area's ecosystem and actually help to prevent flooding elsewhere. In order for farming to be possible in Somerset Levels, artificial canals were built to lower the water levels in wetlands and redirect it elsewhere. In the Somerset Levels, flooding happens from both the coastline and land-based sources like runoff from rainfall.

Flood prevention and defences

Along the coastline in Somerset Levels exists various seawalls and defences to prevent the ocean from flooding inland. Extreme storms and high tides can lead to waves and water levels far higher than normal, so seawalls are essential to protecting the communities in Somerset Levels. Rising sea levels due to climate change are putting more and more pressure on the existing infrastructure, and investment is needed to make sure the communities do not get flooded. As mentioned earlier, artificial canals were built in Somerset Levels, which are locally referred to as rhynes. These rhynes are managed by groups called Internal Drainage Boards (IDB). They exist throughout England and Wales and are responsible for making sure water levels are maintained and water is safely drained. IDBs are also responsible during periods of flooding for warning people and adapting safety measures to help stop flooding from getting worse.

Somerset Floods drainage canal with vegetation StudySmarterFig. 1 - A drainage canal or rhyne in Somerset Levels

Somerset Levels map

The map below shows the Somerset Levels area. As you can see, it's in the South West area of England as part of Somerset County. The light green parts of the map are where the elevation is the lowest, and the dark brown is where the elevation is highest. A significant portion of the Somerset Levels is below sea level, meaning they are at a lower height than the ocean's water.

Somerset Floods Somerset Levels Map StudySmarterFig. 2 - Somerset Levels map

2014 Somerset floods

Starting in late December 2013, a massive wind storm blew from west to east, striking most of Europe. Throughout the months of January and February 2014, more storms also pounded the United Kingdom and Somerset Levels. The combined hit of storm surges from the ocean and increased rainfall meant the Somerset Levels were under high-risk flood conditions. The most affected areas in Somerset were the agricultural areas of Grey Lake, North Moor, and Curry and Hay Moors. Many small villages were cut off by water or found themselves flooded, including Northmoor Green and Burrowbridge.

Impacts

These conditions resulted in the flooding of over 600 homes in the area, and about 17,000 acres of farmland were underwater. The flooding did not recede right away, with flood water in most areas persisting for about a month! Many roads and highways were unusable since they were underwater. Police in the area also reported belongings stolen from flooded homes and farms. The overall financial cost is in the tens of millions of pounds, both in the initial destruction, response, and rebuild. Besides just financial costs, flooding takes an emotional toll on all those affected. The loss of precious belongings, your home, and your source of income is very distressing.

Somerset Floods Burrowbridge underwater StudySmarterFig. 3 - Parts of Burrowbridge underwater in Somerset Levels

Response

The severe flooding in Somerset Levels required a massive response by the government and local residents. The local Internal Drainage Board worked to turn on its pumps to take water out of the flooded areas and ensure the drainage canals were clear. Because of how extreme the flooding was, more pumps were needed, and mobile pumps were brought to help relieve the flooding. Detachments of Royal Marines were brought to Somerset Levels to help as well.

Somerset floods 2014 causes

The immediate cause of the 2014 Somerset floods was the 2013-2014 winter storms resulting in storm surges and lots of rainfall. Digging deeper, we find that many other factors made Somerset Levels more at risk of the type of flooding seen in 2014. As we discussed earlier, wetlands are natural flood defences, but most of the Somerset Floods area has been turned into agricultural land. As opposed to wetlands, agricultural ground does not easily absorb water, meaning that water pools on the land instead of soaking into it. The grazing of livestock in fields also compresses the soil and strips it of grasses, which makes absorbing rainfall harder.

Canals were built to help make sure that rainfall and coastal floods can be redirected from farms and villages, but when severe events like those in 2014 occur, the canals cannot handle it and thus overflow. Since 2014, actions have been taken to help prevent an event from happening again. The dredging of canals to make them deeper and the improvement of seawalls are all necessary to improve the ability for Somerset Levels to thrive.

Somerset floods 2014 deaths

Fortunately, no human lives were lost during the 2014 Somerset floods. However, although there were no deaths, many lives were impacted, causing great emotional and mental stress both during and after the flooding. The people impacted received direct financial support from the government and insurance agencies in order to rebuild.

Somerset floods case study

What can the Somerset floods case study tell us today? For one, they're a great example of the problems that occur when humans try to adapt the environment to suit our needs. The Somerset Levels looked like a great candidate for turning into fertile farmland, but this led to the natural flood protection of the wetlands being subverted. The Somerset floods case study is another great example of adaptation, or how humans change the environment to fit their needs. With the wetlands gone, humans built levees and drainage canals to divert flood waters instead.

Finally, the case study shows that even when the right tools are in place, sometimes we can't engineer our way out of problems. The unprecedented severity of the storm and flood levels was too much to handle. In the face of climate change, we need to change our behaviour and build up even more defences to prevent devastating floods from getting even worse and costing lives.

Somerset Floods - Key takeaways

  • Somerset Levels are a low-lying region in South West England which is prone to flooding.
  • In 2014, a massive flood hit the area resulting in buildings damaged, farmland flooded, and required a large-scale response.
  • The conversion of natural wetlands to farmland has made the risk of flooding worse.
  • Natural hazard management can help to prevent flooding from producing major issues, but climate change is causing flooding to get progressively worse.

References

  1. Fig. 1: drainage canal on Somerset Levels ( https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drainage_canal_on_the_Somerset_Levels_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1306946.jpg) by Rob Purvis (https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/28941), Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/).
  2. Fig. 2: map of Somerset Levels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Somerset_Levels.png), by Nilfanion (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Nilfanion), Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/).
  3. Fig. 3: Burrowbridge in Somerset underwater (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Burrow_Bridge_with_floods.jpg), by Rodw (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Rodw), Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/).

Frequently Asked Questions about Somerset Floods

The Somerset Levels flooded the agricultural areas of Grey Lake, North Moor, and Curry and Hay Moors. Other villages like Northmoor Green and Burrowbridge were also cut off by water or flooded.


Flooding has occurred in Somerset Levels for centuries, with the most recent major flood event being in January and February 2014. However, the storm system causing the event began in late December 2013.

The Somerset floods lasted about a month until most waters were pumped out or receded. The damage to infrastructure and the economy lasted longer, with the time needed to rebuild homes and replant agricultural lands.

Fortunately, no deaths occurred during the 2014 Somerset floods.

The immediate cause of the Somerset flooding was the 2013-2014 storm system, which brought high waters from the oceans and increased rainfall. Land use problems, including the development of agricultural lands which aren't as absorbent, are a structural cause of the Somerset flooding.

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