"Spaces of experience and horizons of expectation": the implications of extreme weather events, past, present and future

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Sch of Histories, Lanuages and Cultures


Predicting the climate of the future and determining how different communities might be affected by and respond to climate change has become an issue of global importance. There is growing concern over the impacts of interannual climate variability and anomalous and 'extreme' weather events such as droughts, floods, storm events and unusually high or low temperatures. While social and economic systems have generally evolved to accommodate some deviations from 'normal' weather conditions, this is rarely true of extremes. For this reason, such events can have the greatest and most immediate social and economic impact of all climate changes.

Yet extreme weather events are as much social texts as material occurrences - as well as being biophysical events, they are also socially and culturally constructed and interpreted. Geographical context influences how individuals and communities experience the natural world. Different regional circumstances, particular physical conditions, an area's social and economic activities and embedded cultural knowledges, norms, values, practices and infrastructures all affect community experiences, reactions and responses to extreme weather. The impact of extreme weather may even vary between individuals, depending on a multitude of factors, which are in turn informed by cultural and historical experiences.

The way in which an extreme event is experienced and perceived determines whether it becomes inscribed into the memory of a community or an individual in the form of oral history, ideology, custom, behaviour, narrative, artefact, technological and physical adaptation, including adaptations to the working landscape and built environment. These different forms of remembering and recording the past represent central media through which information on past events is curated, recycled and transmitted across generations. In this regard, experience or awareness of unusual or extreme events can effectively condition how people comprehend and respond to the problems of risk and uncertainty with respect to the timing and impact of extreme events in the future.

The construction of regionally specific climatic histories and historical extreme weather events, and investigations of the memories of and responses to these events, must form a crucial component of any research that seeks to understand the nature of events that might take place in the future. These histories are also important if we are to be able to assess how different communities in different contexts might be affected by, comprehend and respond to future events. The purpose of the proposed project, therefore, is to examine the nature, timing and socio-economic and cultural consequences of, and responses to, climatic extremes in the UK. This will be achieved through a series of case study-based investigations across the UK and will cover an extended period between 1700 and the present. This study will employ a combination of archival investigation and oral history approaches in order to construct episodes of extreme weather and to explore whether and how these events affected the lives of local people and became inscribed into the cultural fabric and social memory of selected local communities within the case study regions. We will also explore how the recording of these events has changed overtime and is still changing.

The project will work in concert with a number of non academic partners whose roles necessitate an understanding of the history of extreme events and their cultural implications. Specifically we will collaborate with English Heritage and the Meteorological Office through their Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions Over the Earth (ACRE) initiative. The project will help both institutions better appreciate the cultural implications of extreme weather in the regions and communities within which they operate and the ways in which they might anticipate future impacts in their work.

Planned Impact

This research project recovers and integrates evidence that will provide a comprehensive history of extreme weather events and their cultural implications in different case study regions of the UK. The results will be of benefit to a wide range of potential users, including the private sector, government agencies, policy makers, the public sector and the wider public. Our weather and climate histories will feed directly into related data repositories and initiatives, including those managed by our partners on this application, the Atmospheric Circulation Reconstructions over the Earth (ACRE) (http://www.met-acre.org/) initiative of the Meteorological Office. We will help ACRE in its mission to facilitate the recovery, extension, quality control and consolidation of global historical terrestrial and marine instrumental surface data covering the last 250 years.

Understanding the implications of extreme weather on the UK's historic environment, its buildings, gardens and working landscapes is a priority concern for English Heritage, another of our project partners. Our work on the impacts of events on the built and natural environment will yield information fundamental for planning future adaptation strategies for the UK's built infrastructure. It will feed into English Heritage initiatives on these themes, including their statements on Climate Change and the Historic Environment and their "Climate Change and Your Home" website.

This research will be of benefit to the RGS-IBG and its members by contributing case study material to its 'Teaching and Learning Resources for Schools' and for the'Climate4Classrooms'initiative - a project designed to draw together leading experts, teachers, young people, both nationally and internationally, to increase local knowledge about climate and climate change. We will focus on the development of interactive project resources, which will provide students with a toolkit for undertaking their own research on cultural inscription of climate change impacts.

Our contacts include private sector organisations with interests in the history of extreme weather events. Project results will be made available to the British Hydrological Society and specifically their free-access Chronology of British Hydrological Events project, which includes over 8000 accounts of pre-instrumental hydrological events from around the UK. The project applicants also have links with the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and will forge links with the new Natural Resources Body for Wales (as from April 2013), responsible in England, Scotland and Wales respectively for helping organisations adapt to flooding and droughts. The regionally specific information on extreme events and their impacts, and on changing public perceptions of risk, will contribute to their climate change adaptation strategies. Other non-academic beneficiaries include the Health Protection Agency (HPA) which advises on health implications of extreme weather events such as the flooding in the South West in 2007.

The outcomes of this project will be of interest to third sector community and enthusiast groups. The PI and Co-Is have strong links with amateur meteorological and natural history organisations and there are opportunities for publicising this research through their websites, bulletins and journals. The project will contribute to LlenNatur's ('Nature Lore') free-access chronology of weather accounts from Wales. Other community groups that will benefit from the research findings include local resilience fora in each of the case study regions, including Nottingham/Nottinghamshire Local Resilience Forum; NHSScotland Resilience Forum; Norfolk Prepared; Wales Resilience; and Devon, Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Resilience Forum. The project will provide these groups with information on local places at risk from extreme events and evidence of past, and insights into future community responses to those events.


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AH/K005782/1 30/11/2013 31/12/2016 £848,683
AH/K005782/2 Transfer AH/K005782/1 01/04/2017 30/09/2017 £39,340