The Somerset Levels are a coastal plain and wetland area of Somerset, England. Thousands of years ago the area was covered by the sea, but today it’s a landscape of rivers and wetlands – artificially drained, irrigated and modified to allow productive farming.
It is claimed that the Somerset Levels are one of the lowest areas in the UK. Much of the area lies below the high-water mark of spring tides. The area is very flat and has a maximum altitude of 8m above sea level. All rivers in this area including, Axe, Sheppey and Brue in the north, while to the south, the rivers are the Cary, Yeo, Tone and Parrett drain into the Bristol Channel.
In January 2014 the Somerset Levels experienced floods greater than any other in living memory. Estimates suggest that 10% of the area was underwater when the flooding was greatest.
Somerset Levels Flood Map
What were the physical causes of flooding in the Somerset Levels?
A quick succession of prolonged Atlantic storms, with persistent rainfall and gale-force winds were the major cause of flooding. The rivers could not cope with the significant amount of rainfall that fell. Additionally, high tides in the Bristol Channel and its narrowing creating tidal surges. These blocked the floodwater trying to escape the Somerset Levels. Coastal defences coped with the tidal surges.
What were the human causes of flooding in the Somerset Levels?
Leading up to 2014 there had been less dredging of the river channels on the Somerset Levels. As a result of this, the channels had raised due to the accumulation of sediment. This reduced the capacity of rivers to transport water, leading to flooding.
Change in farming practices has also contributed to flooding. Much of the land has been converted from grassland to grow maize. This more intensive use of the land means it is less able to retain water, causing it to run over the surface rather than being absorbed.
What were the impacts of flooding in the Somerset Levels?
Over 600 homes and 6880 hectares of agricultural land were flooded. A number of villages were cut off after roads were flooded.
There were several incidents of crime during the floods. 900 litres of fuel was stolen from a pumping station in Westonzoyland. There were also reports of heating oil and quad bikes being stolen from homes affected by flooding.
Many main roads were closed, including the A361 linking Taunton and Street. Flooding also disrupted train services on the main Bristol line between Taunton and Bridgwater.
There were considerable economic costs associated with the floods. Fuel used to power emergency pumps cost £200 000 per week. An estimated £1 million was lost by local businesses. The Somerset floods cost the county’s tourism industry an estimated £200 million.
Soil was damaged after being underwater for nearly three months. In some areas, it took over two years to restore the soil before crops could be grown.
Insurance costs increased in flood-hit areas of Somerset.
Immediate response to the Somerset Levels flood
As expected for a high-income country (HIC), the response to the flood was well organised and rapid.
Local people in South West England were warned of heavy rain when the Met Office issued an amber warning. The public was advised to prepare for significant flooding by the Environmental Agency. Many people used sandbags to protect their property and moved valuable items upstairs. In Moorland, a man constructed a large wall out of clay and mud to protect his house from flooding.
Rescue boats were used to help stranded people by the fire brigade who also visited hundreds of properties. Rescue crews supported residents of Moorland in evacuating. The owners of some 80 homes agreed to evacuate, however, around 30 residents stayed at home. Additional police patrols were introduced as the result of increased crime.
The army was sent into the area with specialist equipment towards the end of January. The issued sandbags and distributed food. They were later joined by 40 Royal Marines to provide additional support.
Sixty-five pumps were used to drain 65 million m3 of floodwater.
Local people, led by the Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG) provided local support to people affected by the floods. This included fundraising and the collection and distribution of food. They also used social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to share news.
An estimated £15m was made available by the government to meet the immediate costs associated with protecting lives and properties.
Long-term response to the Somerset Levels flood
The long-term response to the Somerset Levels flood focussed on management techniques to reduce the risk of future floods on this scale. The Somerset Levels and Moors Action Plan was developed and included measures such as reintroducing dredging, the construction of a tidal barrage and additional permanent pumping stations. The scheme is part of a 20-year plan for the Somerset Levels and will have a total cost of £100 million.
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