The Heat Is Online

British Rain Keeps Falling

Britons wonder - "Will it ever stop raining?"

Reuters News Service, May 8, 2001

LONDON - A sodden cyclist fighting through the London traffic during a familiar torrential downpour looked up at a bus conductor with a resigned look.

"Does it ever stop raining?" he asked with a shrug, before ploughing through a huge roadside puddle.

It is the question on the lips of millions of Britons, already renowned for their fixation with bland conversations about the weather and their pets.

Now they can do both at once - it has been raining cats and dogs.

It is hard to recall three days in the last three months when there has been no rain in the British capital.

Across the country the limited number of parks and public pathways not closed by the foot-and-mouth livestock disease are often impossible to negotiate for the swamps and bogs they have become.

One young couple who were married in late April in central London had not one drop of rain to spoil the day. They put the miracle down to divine intervention.

But the heavens look likely to continue to open on a regular basis for a long time to come.

"There are climate predictions indicating that the frequency of flooding in the south of England will increase," said a spokesman for the Meteorological Office in London, referring to long-term forecasts.

In the short term, though, things are looking a little brighter, with settled weather across much of Britain expected soon and a drier, warmer summer than average.

COSTS, HUMAN AND MATERIAL, ARE HIGH

There is a serious side to all this.

The human cost of the worst flooding for 50 years during the winter has been high.

Torrential rain and gales that battered Britain in December killed four people and brought further misery to thousands of people already devastated by flooding less than two months earlier.

The October deluge left at least seven dead in northern Europe and thousands had to be evacuated from their homes in low-lying areas. The bill for that downpour in Britain alone was over one billion pounds ($1.4 billion).

Environmentalists say that the unusually wet winter and spring in Britain is consistent with predictions by scientists studying the impact of global warming on the region.

"Researchers anticipate hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters in Britain," said Roger Higman, senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

"We have not had an extended cold snap during the winter for 15 to 20 years."

Higman said that the knock-on effects could be huge, ranging from changes in planting cycles and wildlife habitat to higher insurance premiums and even parts of the country simply disappearing into the sea.

Last month the cliffs at Beachy Head in southern England, lost a coastal landmark when the famous 200-foot (70 metre) Devil's Chimney outcrop collapsed.

A few miles west, staff at a supermarket had a lucky escape when the chalk cliff above them gave way and thousands of tonnes of falling debris stopped just short of their building.

"Then of course there is the psychological factor - those crisp, clear winter days are important to people's moods. They love to see snow," said Higman.

Another environmentalist said he was tempted to call the police when he saw clear blue skies for the first time in weeks on Thursday. Threatening clouds had arrived by midday.

IT REALLY DOES RAIN IN BRITAIN

London may have rid itself of one of its stigmas - fog or smog is now relatively rare.

But when foreigners jibe that it always rains in Britain, who can argue?

Official weather records go back to 1766 but no winter during the last 235 years has been as wet as the one that has just ended.

The Meteorological Office said that 1,299 mm (51 inches) of rain fell across England and Wales between April 2000 and March 2001, just pipping the previous record set in 1872.

April this year was also wet, with 1.6 times as much rain falling as the average taken between 1961 and 1990.

The British, with their stiff upper lips, are expected to just grin and bear all of this. But there are signs that even their patience has run thin. Rain, rather than foot-and-mouth disease which put much of rural Britain out of bounds, was cited as the main factor behind a record 1.75 million Britons taking Easter breaks abroad this year.

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE