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Climate change and river flooding: part 1 classifying the sensitivity of British catchments


Effective national and regional policy guidance on climate change adaptation relies on robust scientific evidence. This two-part series of papers develops and implements a novel scenario-neutral framework enabling an assessment of the vulnerability of flood flows in British catchments to climatic change, to underpin the development of guidance for the flood management community. In this first part, the sensitivity of the 20-year return period flood peak (RP20) to changes in precipitation (P), temperature (T) and potential evapotranspiration (PE) is systematically assessed for 154 catchments. A sensitivity domain of 4,200 scenarios is applied combining 525 and 8 sets of P and T/PE mean monthly changes, respectively, with seasonality incorporated using a single-phase harmonic function. Using the change factor method, the percentage change in RP20 associated with each scenario of the sensitivity domain is calculated, giving flood response surfaces for each catchment. Using a clustering procedure on the response surfaces, the 154 catchments are divided into nine groups: flood sensitivity types. These sensitivity types show that some catchments are (very) sensitive to changes in P but others buffer the response, while the location of catchments of the same type does not show any strong geographical pattern. These results reflect the range of hydrological processes found in Britain, and demonstrate the potential importance of catchment properties (physical and climatic) in the propagation of change in climate to change in floods, and so in characterising the sensitivity types (covered in the companion paper).

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The work presented was funded by Defra and the Environment Agency for England and Wales (FD2020 ‘Regionalised impacts of climate change on flood flows‘) with additional contribution from the NERC-CEH Water science programme. They are all gratefully acknowledged. The development of the science benefited from helpful support from the project managers (Karl Hardy, Ella Thomason and Bill Donovan) and fruitful discussions with Prof. Rob Wilby and review by Prof. Nigel Arnell and Prof. Howard Wheater. Data were from CMIP3, CERA, IPCC-DDC, FEH and the UK National River Flow Archive. The views expressed are those of the authors and not of the funding organisations.

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Correspondence to Christel Prudhomme.

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Prudhomme, C., Crooks, S., Kay, A.L. et al. Climate change and river flooding: part 1 classifying the sensitivity of British catchments. Climatic Change 119, 933–948 (2013).

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  • Response Surface
  • Climate Change Impact
  • Potential Evapotranspiration
  • Flood Peak
  • Flood Magnitude