1st December 2000 at 00:00
Is global warming responsible for the recent spate of floods? John Harris suggests a number of websites to help students judge

These floods and gales - it must be global warming!" my Year 10 class proclaim as they scan the latest press cuttings. Geography and science teachers have been inundated by a deluge of questions from students eager to seek out explanations for the recent extreme weather which has affected the lives of so many people in Britain and Europe.

The debate alone has produced sufficient heat to make a major contribution to the overcharged state of the atmosphere. Is there any real evidence for man-induced global climatic change or are we simply witnessing part of a natural and ongoing cycle of weather variation? It is our duty as teachers to present unbiased information and to provide an opportunity for informed discussion rather than jumping aboard the global warming balloon and soaring away on a rising thermal of misinformation.

There is no doubt that extreme weather is a catalyst that can be used to promote a greater awareness and understanding of the complexities of the atmosphere. Most students have had first-hand experience of the problems that such weather can create. The gales of mid October brought wind speeds up to 120mph and a band of devastation across much of southern England. Severe flooding, initially in Kent and Sussex and then across many parts of the country brought widespread damage, disruption and misery. A tornado ripped through the seaside town of Bognor Regis.

It is important for students to have some frame of reference to judge the scale and impact of such events. They also need to appreciate the underlying scientific processes and to discuss possible solutions. How for instance do recent events compare with the gales of October 1987 or the floods of 1947 or 1953? I have found it useful to direct my students to the excellent Meteorological Office website on historic United Kingdom weather events. Other useful information on weather extremes can be found at the BBC Weather Centre website. (See website addresses box.) There are many important questions to be answered. Is society to blame through the burning of fossils fuels and increasing atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases? Are present climatic fluctuations greater and more rapid than those experienced previously? What can be done to reduce future hazards? What part can we all play in limiting our future vulnerability? Such questions are highly relevant and cut across many parts of the school curriculum.

There is an enormous amount of weather data freely and instantly available on the internet. The role of the teacher is increasingly one of "navigational assistant" and "discussion moderator". The BBC Weather Centre and UK Met Office websites (see box) provide an array of live weather satellite images and maps of wind speed and rainfall intensity, accompanied by expert analysis and comment. The Met Office has published a detailed set of synoptic charts and data on the recent UK floods and storms.

Students can use online news and media such as BBC News Online (see box) to follow events in "real-time" with frequently updated weather warnings, live audio and video reports and web links to background information. There is also great deal of archived material on flooding, gales, hazards and global climatic change with widely contrasting views and interpretations. This helps students to put recent events into perspective.

Some websites, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's, provide sources of information where students can evaluate the widely differing evidence and environmental interpretations.

Students can use these sites to enhance their own understanding of the complex processes and issues involved. The resulting classroom discussion and presentations encourage more informed judgments and conclusions to be made.

At key stage 3 I encourage students to investigate and discuss some of the following:

* When does a natural event become a natural disaster?

* Discuss how the impact of natural disasters can be measured, for example cost of damage, loss of life, disruption of everyday life.

* Research a variety of recent natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes. Try visiting: Volcano World, eruptions: http:volcano.und.nodak.eduvw.html Discovery Online, earthquakes: expearthquakeshits.html Hurricanes: http:weathereye.

kgan.comexperthurricanebasics.html and www. discovery.comstoriessciencehurricanesfuture.html * Map the distribution of disasters on a world map. Do patterns emerge? Can they be explained? What are the implications?

* How does the scale of recent flooding and storm damage in the UK compare with other natural disasters worldwide?

* Contrast the impact of dis-asters in less economically developed countries compared with more economically dev-eloped countries * Discuss the role of emergency aid and the need for longer-term aid and planning.

At A-level students are expected to undertake more specific research:

* Study the Meteosat weather images and Met Office wind charts for October 30 then describe and explain the distribution of the areas of highest rainfall intensity and highest wind speeds.

* With reference to the synoptic charts and wind gust maps for October 29 and 30 explain why the gales did most damage in southern England. www. interestingimages GustValue29-30Oct-00.gif * Plot rainfall intensity graphs and contrast these with the timing of the most severe flooding in the catchments of the River Severn, Ouse or Derwent. What other factors could explain the lag-time in flood response?

* How unusual are the recent gales and heavy rainfall? Study the UK map of return period and percentage of long-term average rainfall. How are such data calculated? What is its value?

* Apart from climatic reasons, why else may flooding and its effects have increased in the past 100 years? Investigate the increase in building in flood plain areas and explain what impact this may have.

* What impact may recent flooding have on local planning decisions and national housing strategies?

* How accurate are weather forecasts? Why is forecasting so complex?

* Do recent weather events really provide evidence of climate change induced by society?

The Radley College geography department has designed and administered several interactive web-based weather projects. In 1987 I set up MetLink International to promote the study of meteorology. UK schools exchange weather data with other schools worldwide, using the internet. Students report first-hand on their own weather experiences and upload material to the weather news website at: http: atschool. The reports include record low temperatures in Scandinavia, bushfires in Australia, smog in Bombay and cyclones and flooding in southern Africa. Metlink is sponsored and supported by the Royal Meteorological Society. Such projects bring weather studies to life and allow students to participate in valuable first-hand data collection and analysis.

I hope students will make their own judgment about global warming and weather extremes, based on scientific evidence. "It's an ill wind that blows no good" and recent events have enhanced the scope for investigations.

John Harris is head of geography, Radley College, Abingdon E-mail:


UK Meteorological Office: BBC Weather Centre: Royal Meteorological Society: uk MetLinkInternational: http: radgeogmetlinkmetlink.html Environmental Environmental Protection Agency: globalwarmingindex.html CSIRO Atmospheric Research: NOAA: www.solcomhouse.comglobalwarming.htm http:www.cpc.ncep. Friends of Earth: www.foe. Historical ationhistoricflood.html flood.html Charts and data on UK floods Real-time weather news

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