Whaley Bridge shows what might lie ahead

Whaley Bridge shows what might lie ahead

The future can knock on the door in the most peculiar and surprising ways.

We can, like those doomed Europeans of the 1930s, ignore the ever-louder knocking and hope civilisation endures. Or, we can prepare to meet it four-square because, one way or another, it will arrive.

In recent days we have had a small but close-to-home glimpse of what our future might hold and it is unsettling.

More than 1,000 residents of the Derbyshire town, Whaley Bridge, have had to leave their homes with little more than what they could carry because Toddbrook reservoir, sitting high above their town, may break through damaged ramparts that hold back its 1.3m tonnes of water. The situation was brought to a head by extreme rainfall.

Engineers pumped water and reduced levels by 200mm but the situation is far from resolved. It remains critical. Should the dam fail, Whaley Bridge may simply be washed away and thousands of lives turned upside down. The situation may not be directly linked to climate change — it cannot be unlinked either — but it does forewarn us of what we might, in the extreme circumstances predicted by science, face.

The people of the cities of Cork and Limerick, both of which stand between major dams and the sea, will empathise with the people of Whaley Bridge. Though there is absolutely no suggestion that the dam on the Lee at Inniscarra or the Shannon dam at Parteen are vulnerable in the slightest way, it seems prudent to wonder if those structures, each built long before climate change was recognised, might face tomorrow’s challenges as well as they have endured those of the past — the challenges they were designed to withstand.

It may be tempting to dismiss that devil’s advocate question but it would be more sensible to apply what might be described as the Whaley Bridge Test to all our infrastructure, especially as all our main cities are built on estuaries — as are some of our most important power and water treatment plants. That test would be carried out against a backdrop of a large rise in sea levels in recent decades. The EPA has since the early 1990s, recorded climate change sea-level rises of about 3.5cm per decade around our coast.

Yet, we persist with flood-prevention plans that seem at best quaint. Any efforts to have a serious discussion about tidal barriers are dismissed as premature — as if you could, when the time comes, order one from Amazon. It is understandable that scale in cost, in even imagining a scenario where as many as 10 tidal barriers might be needed on this island, is overwhelming but that can hardly be an excuse not to prepare for a hugely disrupted future.

As the people of Whaley Bridge wait helplessly for either catastrophe or redemption, the sea ice circling Antarctica has plunged from a record high to a record low in just three years; record temperatures in Europe, America, and Australia are almost the new norm; a staggering number of intense wildfires blaze across the Earth’s northern latitudes. Even in a country where, despite all the warning signs, we subsidise heavily polluting industries to secure a few votes, that minutes-to-midnight knocking can hardly be ignored. Can it?

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