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Geography and International Development

As a result of climate change, weather patterns around the world are changing. The Met Office projects that the UK will experience more frequent and intense weather extremes with warmer, wetter winters and hotter and drier summers in the future. With an increase in extreme weather projected, the risk of natural hazards in the UK also grows.  Though typically when considering different types of natural hazards, most individuals would think of volcanoes and earthquakes. Here in the UK, the nation’s biggest hazards are flooding, droughts, coastal erosion, landslides, sinkholes and wildfires. How well prepared is the UK to manage these hazards? Read on to find out how natural hazard managers and geographers can be part of the solution…


Flooding is the most prevalent of all UK hazards and at present costs the nation around £2.2billion per year.  Though perhaps traditionally considered the engineers’ domain, geographers are increasingly playing a pivotal role in flood management solutions across the UK. Geographers’ are vital for this by mapping flood risk areas by capturing imagery of floods from above using drones. Geographers’ also utilise new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality to visualise floods and flood risk while using computer models to project areas most at risk of flooding. This allows work with communities to help to build resilience to flooding through education and property-level protection. Geographers and hazard managers are often at the heart of managing floods in the UK.  With an Increase in precipitation leading to an increased likelihood of flooding, embedding holistic flood management solutions, taking into account people and place, is vital for at-risk communities around the UK.

Floods in Maghull, Liverpool following Storm Christoph Photo: Dr Anthony Cliffe


Though less often discussed, with the projection of warmer, drier summers, drought is another hazard facing the UK with increasing occurrence. Assessing soil properties such as moisture, understanding meteorology, hydrology and drainage networks in particular are key roles for geographers when assessing the impact of drought. Drought affects farming, crop production and ultimately land use; the complexities of the impacts and how they potentially feedback into a positive feedback loop (i.e. exacerbating the problem) are crucial to understand. Freshwater availability is vital for human survival and though flooding is prominently discussed in the media with drought less often discussed, increasingly evidence suggests that parts of the UK will become ‘water stressed’ by 2035 bringing with it economic and social challenges. There are clear synergies between flood and drought which, if considered effectively, could offer potential solutions for both hazards. Rainwater harvesting in particular is one of a number of proposed solutions to the flood/drought hazards facing the UK.

Coastal Erosion

Coastal Erosion, Thurstaston, Wirral Photo: Dr Katharine Welsh

Coastal erosion is another significant UK hazard which will likely be further exacerbated by increased rainfall. Projections suggest that 2000 homes could be at risk of coastal erosion in the next decade as a result of the changing climate. By understanding the physical processes of erosion, and using cost-benefit analysis, geographers in councils and consultancies work to implement coastal erosion strategies and shoreline management plans for different parts of the UK coastline.  They analyse whether there should be ‘no active intervention’, whether they should ‘hold the line’ and maintain current defences, implement ‘managed realignment’ by moving the shoreline to erode to an agreed position or ‘advance the line’ by building new defences to extend the land out to sea. Hazard managers work with communities to better understand their perceptions and the impacts that the coastal management strategies will have.  Sea level rise and increased precipitation will likely further accelerate the impacts of coastal erosion around the UK.


Though mentioned in the media less frequently, landslides are prevalent in the UK with the National Landslide Database currently holding over 18,000 records.  By assessing soil type, slope angle and underlying geology, natural hazard managers and geographers can create susceptibility maps using Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which indicate where, and under which conditions, landslides are most likely to occur. Landslides can often disrupt transport links and road networks, and cause possible danger to life in some extreme cases.  Increased precipitation resulting from climate change will likely lead to more saturated land, thereby increasing the likelihood of landslides in the UK. 

Mam Tor Landslides, Derbyshire Photo: Dr Katharine Welsh


In recent years, primarily as a result of increased precipitation, sinkholes have been more prevalent across the UK particularly in areas underlain by Carboniferous limestone such as the Mendips or Peak District or gypsum such as Ripon in North Yorkshire. Though geology can be an important factor in determining the susceptibility of land to the occurrence of sinkhole some sinkholes occur as a result of erosional processes taking place within the loose sediment (superficial deposits) such as soil piping.  By studying physical processes such as fluid and sediment dynamics and conducting susceptibility mapping using GIS, geographers can offer further insight into the likelihood of the risk of sinkholes in increasingly wetter conditions, and work with communities to raise their awareness of this increasingly prevalent hazard in the UK.


Though wildfires are often considered a hazard for areas such as Australia and North America, in 2019, the UK experienced 137 wildfires larger than 25 hectares in size.  Wildfires can impact the biogeography of an area, can cause damage to buildings and communities and create air pollution.   Geographers and hazard managers have a role to play through GIS mapping, drone imagery of the damaged area, monitoring of air quality and working with communities to enhance the education of the wildfire threat.  Though the majority of wildfires are actually sparked by human activity (accidental or otherwise), as summers become hotter and drier due to climate change, woodland, peatland and grasslands will dry out creating a ‘perfect storm’ of fuel for the ignition of fires.


Geography is essentially the study of people and places; at the heart of all-natural hazards, is the interface between physical and social environments. Who better placed than geographers to be part of the solution to the increasing hazards the UK will face as a result of climate change? Understanding human-environment interactions are the key to better understanding and more holistic management of natural hazards for all stakeholders, including the biosphere, communities and councils.


University of Chester Natural Hazard Management Students assessing landslide risk Photo: Dr Katharine Welsh

If you would like to find out more about how you can help to be part of the solution for the UK and global hazards and would like to learn about the programmes we offer at the University of Chester, please visit our pages for Natural Hazard Management and Geography.

Dr Katharine Welsh, Senior Lecturer & Programme Leader, MSc Flood Risk Assessment, Modelling & Engineering

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