University researchers developing models to better predict flooding and droughts

Posted: Thursday 2nd May 2013

In the last year there has been increased recognition of the problems the UK may face in the future with regards to flooding and drought. The UK Government's Chief Scientist, Prof Sir John Beddington has echoed this in the final week of his tenure stating; "The [current] variation we are seeing in temperature or rainfall is double the rate of the average. That suggests that we are going to have more droughts, we are going to have more floods, we are going to have more sea surges and we are going to have more storms."

With climate change likely to cause further severe weather events in the coming years, methods of quickly predicting flooding will become increasingly important. This has been recognised by teams of scientists at Universities across the UK, noticeably the University of Exeter and Imperial College London in recent months.

The University of Exeter: Superfast model brain to predict flooding during heavy rain

At the University of Exeter a team of engineers and scientists has developed a model 1000 times faster than existing flood prediction systems, which can rapidly predict when and where flooding will occur. The model uses artificial intelligence to 'learn', in the same way that biological neural networks in the human brain process data. The artificial neural network used consists of mathematical models which run repeated cycles of mathematical equations. Following the running of repeated cycles, the model simulates learning and results in dramatically faster and more accurate flood prediction than possible with existing systems.

The system is designed to work for urban areas, and uses information about the drainage and sewage systems to predict volume and flow of flood water in real time, providing instant updates in times of heavy rain. The models have undertaken initial testing and so far show good ability to predict flooding with field trials. It is hoped that the model will be rolled out nationwide and incorporated into general use. The model has been shown to be of great potential value for the water industry in a report commissioned by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR).

Professor Dragan Savic, who headed the development of the new model at the University of Exeter said; "Our model can be trained to use data from rainfall events to distinguish between urban areas that suffer from flooding and those that don't. Once it has learnt, it can then be used to classify new rainfall events into those likely to cause flooding and those that do not pose a threat."

ImperialCollege London: Models to predict flood and drought risks developed

Researchers from Imperial College London have teamed up with hydrogeologists and modellers from the British Geological Survey to develop a range of models that more accurately predict the time of flooding and can help predict droughts and contamination of groundwater in southern England. The models developed are being concentrated specifically on a chalk aquifer in southern England, which provides up to 20 percent of the UK's water supply.

Dr Adrian Butler, Reader in Subsurface Hydrology in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial, said; "Despite 2012 starting out as a period of extreme drought, it ended as the wettest year on record for England. Now in 2013, if England should get a wetter than normal period, there is a distinct possibility for groundwater flooding to occur in areas dominated by the chalk aquifer. Though there is little than can be done to prevent these floods, our risk assessment models are able to help the Environment Agency in providing communities with advanced warnings so that they can prepare."

Dr Butler and his fellow researchers, in collaboration with Thames Water, are also developing models to assess the effect of drought on water availability in the Chalk aquifer. This will help enable the Environment Agency and water companies decide when to implement water conservation actions, such as a hosepipe ban, in times when the chalk's water table is low.

A further issue the researchers are using their models to understand more about is how nitrates seep into the chalk aquifer. European directives require the nitrate level in drinking water to be below 50 milligrams per litre. When nitrate levels are above 50 milligrams per litre, water companies must treat the drinking water, which is a very expensive process. Dr Butler and his team therefore are using their models to predict the amount of nitrates making their way into the groundwater supply. The models can then provide water companies with advanced warnings on the level of nitrates expected to trickle into groundwater supplies each year.

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