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An assessment of changes in seasonal and annual extreme rainfall in the UK between 1961 and 2009

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Abstract

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's contestation that changes to hydrological extremes as a result of anthropogenic climate change are likely. There is also a growing level of concern among water resource managers about the nature of these changes and how we might adapt our behaviour to accommodate them. In particular, extreme multi-day rainfall events have been a significant contributing factor to the severe flood events of recent years.

Here we provide an updated study of extreme rainfall in the UK, focussing on changes to seasonal and annual maxima over the period 1961-2009. We employ regional frequency analysis to examine changes in the magnitude of estimated return periods obtained from generalized extreme value distribution curves. Return period estimates are analysed using both the full record and using 10 year intervals to determine the relative importance of natural variability and long-term changes in extreme rainfall distribution.

The magnitude of changes in estimated return periods are spatially varied, and dominated in northern and western parts of the UK by a periodic forcing such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), superimposed on normal seasonal fluctuations. In contrast, seasonality has the greatest influence on event magnitude in the south and east. We confirm that previously reported increases in spring and autumn extreme rainfall events have continued. Similarly, longer duration winter events have continued to increase in intensity, with a decrease in return period estimate from a 25-year to around a 5-year event over the full 50 years of record in parts of Scotland and Southwest England. In contrast, short-duration summer rainfall events have continued to decline in intensity, whereas longer duration events appear to be increasing in intensity. These results may have significant implications for flood defence design and planning, as well as to agricultural practices which may be sensitive to extreme rainfall. Copyright © 2012 Royal Meteorological Society

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