Picture of the Atlantic recorded to help understand climate change

August 24, 2007 at 11:18 am

The dramatic events that took place in the Hollywood blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow might soon be as immediate as the title denotes. The disastrous environmental events which occur in the film (New York City being completely flooded and frozen over) depict ocean currents such as The Gulf Stream in the Atlantic ocean being destroyed, resulting in the ocean becoming an ice-rink. According to new breakthrough research this might not be as ‘science-fiction’ as we would all like to think.

The first detailed pictures of the Atlantic’s currents have been produced by scientists from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton in the UK. The pictures map in precise detail where and how the current circulation changes throughout the length of one year, and this can be then vital when looking at the ocean’s effect and impact due to global warming. European currents of warmer waters in their seas come from the Atlantic and the most well known current, The Gulf Stream. These keep the temperature at a moderate 4 – 6 degrees.

This new research began in 2004 and principally involved a series of instruments being ‘strung out’ on a cable on a voyage at 26.5 degrees north from Africa to the Bahamas. The cables then drifted behind the boats measuring flow, salinity, temperature, and the pressure of the sea water. Then over the last few years, the scientists have been able to add their new data to other existing data from around the world to paint a very detailed picture of the movements and changes in the Atlantic’s currents. They have concluded that the circulation of the ocean does change significantly in one single year.

The Gulf Stream could one day be completely non-existent if the earth’s temperature continues to rise and the sea’s temperature level drops drastically when ice around the Arctic Circle melts. The figures announced by the scientists at this stage are around 30%, in terms of how much the circulation has weakened.

Stuart Cunningham, who is one of the key scientists in the research said, “The Atlantic Ocean carries a quarter of the global northwards heat flux, so having the information to plug into climate models will be a major addition.”

This study is a breakthrough in its field. Before it, the historical records weren’t always reliable or conclusive enough. The new picture gives scientists and environmentalists a real-time map of the ocean’s flow from ‘top to bottom and from side to side.’

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Severn Trent to give £3.5 million of flood aid Guide

August 8, 2007 at 5:22 pm

Monday 6th August saw the reopening of the Mythe Water Treatment plant in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. It had shut 17 days previously, after the plant’s flood defences were overwhelmed by the rising waters of the River Severn. Local operator Severn Trent carried out a controlled closure of the site, leaving 140,000 households (around 340,000 people) in the surrounding areas without clean tap water. Residents were forced to boil their tap water before using it, or find bottled water.

In a statement designed to pacify irritated customers, Managing Director Tony Wray said “We at Severn Trent recognise that many communities in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire have suffered significantly during this period. Therefore we have decided to make available up to £3.5 million to support those communities in recovering from this incident. Severn Trent will be working with the local authorities to determine how to make best use of this money. We believe that a contribution such as this will be of long term benefit to all in the community.”

The company hopes this money will help its customers who are out of pocket but unable to claim compensation. Under normal circumstances, Severn Trent would be obliged to give financial reimbursement to its customers when it was unable to supply them with water. The Guaranteed Standard Scheme allows each account-holder £20 for each 24 hour period they are without water. Business customers are entitled to £50. However, because of the severity of the weather and unprecedented scale of the ensuing floods, the scheme does not apply and Severn Trent is not obliged to compensate its customers. This has angered many out-of-pocket Gloucestershire residents, who consider £3.5 million a pinch of salt compared to the £326 million pre-tax profit made by the company last year.

The company also warned its shareholders that the costs of the flooding would be in the region of £25 to £30 million, with insurance recoveries likely to be between £10 and £20 million. The company made it clear that this is an initial estimate and may be subject to revision as the extent of the damage continues to be made clear. The company also defended its response to the emergency, which has been criticized by some MPs and consumer groups. The company’s actions included:

  • Purchasing 50 million litres of bottled water
  • Deploying 1,300 water bowsers and refilling these 3 times a day with a fleet of 100 tankers
  • Deploying 2000 emergency staff to the area to manage the crisis and restore water supplies as quickly as possible
  • Installing additional flood protection equipment soon after regaining access to the station at Mythe.

The company is currently in talks with regulator Ofwat and the government to determine who is going to foot the bill for the flood damage. Some would argue that as businesses, water companies expose themselves to flood risk when entering the market, and it should not be up to the government (ie. the taxpayer) to bail them out – especially when their business has proved so profitable in recent years. However, should the government not provide money, the structure of the UK water industry means that companies such as Severn Trent enjoy regional monopolies, and would be able to pass on their costs to their customers fairly easily.

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Floods will push up water bills

August 2, 2007 at 12:26 pm

Baroness Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency, has warned the public that water bills will need to rise to meet the cost of improving flood defences in the wake of this summer’s floods across England. Talking to the Daily Telegraph, Lady Young said “Bills are going to have to go up, both because of drought and floods. You either pay upstream to prevent, or you pay downstream to mop up but you’ve got to pay, climate change is coming home to roost.”

Baroness Young’s comments have elicited a range of suprised and angry reactions. The timing of the comments are particularly questionable, given that thousands of homes across the country are still underwater, and the Environment Agency has just announced bonuses for its managers for meeting government targets.

Water companies have come under criticism from consumer groups for under-investing in infrastructure. Severn Trent, which has a monopoly in Gloucestershire, one of the most seriously hit counties, has recently reported profits of £300 million. The water industry as a whole has failed to meet regulator Ofwat’s targets for insfrastructural investment of £4.3 billion for 2006. The actual amount invested in repairs and upgrades was closer to £3.4 billion.

Many consumers will now be asking why they should pay higher rates when the water companies aren’t prepared to invest their own profits into their business. Even at existing levels, consumers are facing an average 18% increase (after inflation) up until 2010. If the rises Baroness Young talked about materialized, they would come on top of this figure.

Tony Smith, chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water is concerned about the value for money that customers are getting. He said, “Firstly, we want to press the water companies and Ofwat to ensure that the huge amount that has been spent on maintenance already – that customers are paying for – has been spent in a useful way and delivered the right protection for customers.”

Baroness Young’s comments were directly contradicted by Ofwat Chairman Philip Fletcher, who said that there would be no changes in the price plans up until 2010. He cited the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn’s promise that the government would invest £200 million into flood defences. Water companies were also baffled by the Baroness’s comments. As an outsider, she has very little influence in their pricing strategies.

This episode raises questions about the competency of the Environment Agency and its chief, particularly given that Baroness Young has received a £24,000 bonus on top of her annual £163,000 salary. Taxpayers, particularly those whose homes are now underwater, would be forgiven for wondering how this and other management bonuses were earned. Some residents of Tewksbury, one of the worst hit towns, have called for the bonuses to be repaid into the Flood Appeal Fund, to help those struggling with the costs of the flood.

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MP tackles Gordon Brown about high water bills in south west England

August 2, 2007 at 12:08 pm

Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton, Linda Gilroy, has written to the new Prime Minister to press him on the issue of high water bills in the South West. A Commons motion was submitted back in February in response to South West Water increasing charges for customers who already have the highest bills in the country. The latest price hikes see bills for unmetred homes in Plymouth go up by 16.1% to £680. The average bill in London is £275.

User comments on The Water Guide reflect continued frustration amongst householders in the South West. Water and sewerage bills are described as ‘ridiculous’, ‘exorbitant’, ‘unfair’ and ‘unjustified.’

Announcing their charges for 2007/2008, South West Water said they were acutely aware that price increases may ’cause difficulty for some customers’. They say that higher than average bills are the result of essential infrastructure investments made in the last 15 years to improve service and meet stringent industry standards.

South West Water argues that there are a range of measures to help people struggling to cope with price increases. These include the installation of water meters and WaterCare, a scheme designed to help those in need to pay their bills and save water.

On the 7th June 2007, Linda Gilroy MP asked Ian Pearson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he expected to publish the Water Strategy and what account it would take of affordability. Ian Pearson replied that the strategy would be published later this summer and that it would take account of affordability concerns, particularly for those on low incomes and vulnerable groups. The new Water Strategy will outline Government commitments to water availability and quality, aiming to improve standards of service while balancing environmental impacts and social and economic factors.

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Share your flood experiences and advice

August 1, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Have you been affected by the flooding this summer?

If you’ve been affected by the floods and would like to share your story or offer advice to other flood victims, tell us about it.

If you have any photos to upload we’ll add them to your message.

Caution: Do not put your safety or the safety of others in danger.

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