Living near one of the country’s mightiest rivers, you can’t help but develop a healthy respect for the elemental forces. This week, walking along the River Tyne, I’ve watched it change overnight from its usual, relatively placid guise, into a raging monster, boiling and churning towards the North Sea, snapping at everything in its wake and carrying whole trees with it.
A month’s rain fell in a day in the north-east, as the worst September storm in 30 years hit the UK. As in many other regions, severe flooding resulted, with all the human misery that ensues. For some of the people who have seen their homes and businesses wrecked, it’s déjà vu.
It’s the third time we’ve seen massive flooding in the region this year. The north-east isn’t normally known for its wetness – we’re in the rainshadow of the Pennines, and it’s Cumbria that gets all the precipitation. But the Tyne collects water from the vast uplands of the north Pennines and Cheviots. Where drains and other land management have interfered with the natural sponge effect of these areas, the water simply runs off too fast. It could have been a lot worse. A week earlier, and the storm would have coincided with high spring tides – and the Tyne is tidal until quite far west of Newcastle. The combination of water flowing off the hills to the west, and tidal surges from the east could have seen the floodplain areas of Tyneside, one of our major urban conurbations, totally inundated.
It’s predicted that we’ll see more flooding, and more drought, as a result of climate change. Yet houses are still being built on floodplains, with more planned, and despite best efforts of bodies like the Environment Agency, it feels as though measures for mitigation are going to be too little, too late.
At the Woodland Trust, we’ve talked a lot about the role trees could have in mitigating flooding. Trees intercept water, helping to increase soil infiltration rates. In upper catchments they can help to stagger peak flows, and if sited appropriately on floodplains they can help alleviate flooding.
It would be facile to suggest trees are the whole, or even a large part of the answer to this most complex problem. We need to look at land management across the board, both rural and urban. But trees are a part of a range of solutions, and one that is cheap and relatively easy to achieve. However, they take time to grow, and this week’s floods are yet another reminder of the urgency of the situation. That’s why the best time to plant trees was yesterday – the next best time is today.
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser