Extreme weather and climate change resilience

Guest Blogger
Head of Arup Advanced Technology and Research (AT+R) in the UK

A Chartered Engineer and Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Peter has worked on projects from vibration mitigation through to being a Logistician for a 100 bed hospital in Sierra Leone. He is currently involved in a number of projects related to the electrification of transport and high value research facilities.


The British weather has surprised us again this summer, or perhaps not, depending on your expectations. While I was hanging around Edgbaston cricket ground waiting for the rain to stop, Polly Turton, a climate change specialist at Arup, was writing this blog entry. She reminds us of the role of engineers have to play in ensuring that our built environment is resilient to the potential consequences of climate change.  

So, it’s official. If you hadn’t already guessed, June 2012 has been declared the UK’s wettest June since records began.  At one end of the disruption scale this means play gets delayed on all courts at Wimbledon, save for Centre Court with its elegantly engineered retractable roof. “Nothing new there,” tennis fans might say. That’s standard for any outdoor spectator sport or cultural event held during the English summer. At the other end of the scale parts of Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire experienced a month’s worth of rainfall in just a day leading to river banks bursting and waist-high water flowing down the high streets of towns and villages such as Wigan and Hebden Bridge. People have had to evacuate their homes and businesses; some have had to be rescued by boat.

All of this wet weather followed a high profile drought awareness campaign led by the Environment Agency and the water companies which began April, as aquifers, reservoirs and rivers were at an all time low due to last year being the UK’s driest year on record. So no heatwaves for the UK so far this summer. Perhaps we will experience a ‘barbecue Autumn’ based on the unseasonally hot September and October we had last year when temperatures reached 29°C.

Our climate is changing.

On the other side of the Atlantic – the ocean from which most of our weather originates – things have been considerably more extreme with impacts on a different scale of magnitude altogether. A combination of extremely hot weather and a series of severe storms have led to wildfires in Colorado as well as heat related deaths and a widespread lack of power across the Mid-Atlantic states of the USA.

10 strategies for keeping buildings cool under future climate scenarios.

Unfortunately these kinds of events are projected to occur more frequently and with more intensity due to global warming and climate change. The associated impacts are likely to be more costly in economic, social and environmental terms, largely due to increasing urbanisation. This year’s Brunel Lecture, delivered by Jo da Silva, Director of Arup’s International Development team, was titled Shifting agendas: response to resilience – the role of the engineer in disaster risk reduction. Part of the context for the lecture was this increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events in both the developed and developing world. Arup and the ICE are now calling upon engineers to take a new approach to managing risks and hazards in the built environment: an approach that places a priority on creating resilient cities, infrastructure and communities able to respond and adapt to changing circumstances and disruptive events, including gradual changes to climate and extreme weather events.

To achieve this requires better integration of engineering with strategic policy, spatial planning and urban design.

In the UK engineers and architects are getting to grips with the required shift in the design and management of our built environment. The projected impacts of climate change are a key driver. In the UK we may be less exposed and vulnerable to natural hazards than some countries but we have our own extreme weather events and climate change projections to address.

It is four years since the Climate Change Act 2008made the UK the first country to have a legally binding long-term strategy to cut carbon emissions as well as adapt to the impacts of climate change, and three years since the UKCP09 climate change projectionswere launched. There has been a considerable amount of activity during this time.

Since 2010 the Technology Strategy Board, through its ‘Design for Future Climate’ (DfFC) programme, has funded approximately 50 assessments of climate related risks and impacts for ‘real’ building and masterplanning projects. The background reportDesign for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment identified key design challenges, largely relating to too much or too little heat or water, and explored how to interpret the scientific climate data for building projects across their design, construction and management lifetime. The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers and the Royal Institute of British Architects are disseminating the findings to inform and guide building services engineers and architects.

In a parallel and related universe, the first UK Climate Change Risk Assessmentwas published by the government in January 2012. This identified 100 main climate change risks across 11 key sectors, including the built environment, and analysed their likelihood, scale of consequence and urgency of action required.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are now leading on the National Adaptation Programme (NAP), working across sectors and professions to increase the UK’s resilience to climate change. Multi-sector and multi-disciplinary engagement and knowledge sharing are absolutely vital. Defra are working closely with the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Environment Agency (EA) on the built environment aspects of the NAP. This involves identifying the costs and benefits of adaptation strategies and highlighting existing policies, standards and regulations which may help or hinder adaptation action. The EA recently launched their ‘Climate Ready’ support servicewhich provides practical guidance and tools to enable more ‘climate risk aware’ decision making. The Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network is working with these organisations to ensure the UK construction industry benefits from the 50 DfFC projects and that they feed into the design and delivery of future building projects.

Preparing for and managing extreme weather events, and dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of climate change is challenging. Completely ‘future proofing’ our built environment is impossible. However, the information and ideas needed to ensure we create more resilient built environments that work for people and business are out there. Engineering is central to this. We can design ‘all weather’ sports venues and flood resilient streets, towns and cities. We can help implement hot weather plans, wildfire management systems and hurricane proof energy networks. In order to do this though, we need to continue to understand and assess climate risks and work with the right people, at the right scales, to manage them.