Abstract

A cluster of recent floods in the UK has prompted significant interest in the question of whether floods are becoming more frequent or severe over time. Many trend assessments have addressed this in recent decades, typically concluding that there is evidence for positive trends in flood magnitude at the national scale. However, trend testing is a contentious area, and the resilience of such conclusions must be tested rigorously. Here, we provide a comprehensive assessment of flood magnitude trends using the UK national flood dataset (NRFA Peak Flows). Importantly, we assess trends using this full dataset as well as a subset of near-natural catchments with high-quality flood data to determine how climate-driven trends compare with those from the wider dataset that are subject to a wide range of human disturbances and data limitations. We also examine the sensitivity of reported trends to changes in study time window using a ‘multitemporal’ analysis. We find that the headline claim of increased flooding generally holds up regionally to nationally, although we show a much more complicated picture of spatio-temporal variability. While some reported trends, such as increasing flooding in northern and western Britain, appear to be robust, trends in other regions are more mixed spatially and temporally – for example, trends in recent decades are not necessarily representative of longer-term change, and within regions (e.g. in southeast England) increasing and decreasing trends can be found in close proximity. While headline conclusions are useful for advancing national flood-risk policy, for flood-risk estimation, it is important to unpack these local changes, and the results and methodological toolkit provided here could provide such supporting information to practitioners.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Up-to-date national assessment of trends in flood magnitude for the UK.

  • We examine long-term trends in a multitemporal context (sensitivity to time period).

  • We compare sites at near-natural catchments with the wider network of disturbed sites.

  • Results generally confirm the robustness of previously highlighted increases in flooding.

  • However, we provide significantly greater spatial and temporal detail.

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