UK must prepare for extreme weather and ageing population
(5 October 2011)
Researchers have mapped areas of England most likely to face more extreme weather events and increasingly elderly populations, and have called on service providers to adjust their planning to meet these challenges.
The new maps produced by Durham University's Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience and Heriot-Watt University suggest that many areas in England projected to see an increase in severe weather, such as floods and heatwaves, over the next 30 years, may also need to care for high proportions of vulnerable older people.
The study highlights the potential vulnerability of older populations in rural regions, often in coastal areas.
The findings are relevant to the whole of the UK and other parts of the world where an increase in extreme weather events coupled with population ageing are also expected, the researchers say.
The first results of the Durham and Heriot-Watt project, Built Infrastructure for Older People's Care in Conditions of Climate Change (BIOPICCC), are published in the journal Applied Geography.
The study, based on data derived from the UK Climate Impacts Programme and the Environment Agency's Foresight, mapped the likely patterns of heatwaves, coldwaves and flooding.
These maps predict warmest conditions in the South and South West of England, while areas such as the East of England, North West, and Yorkshire and Humber are projected to experience an increase in heatwave events compared with conditions now.
Although coldwaves will be less common nationally, they will continue to challenge health and social care providers, the researchers say. The flood maps highlight the susceptibility of coastal areas to flooding and sea-level rise, in particular the South East, the East of England and the Yorkshire and Humber region.
Older people (aged 65 years and over) will make up over one in five of the population of England by 2031. Many areas likely to see rapid growth in the older population are rural or semi-rural areas, outside the major cities in England. In some areas, over 40 per cent of the population will be aged 65 and over in 2031. So researchers say that planners must take into account these predicted demographic changes as well as the potential weather shocks.
Professor Sarah Curtis, Department of Geography, Durham University, said: "It makes sense to plan ahead. Coldwaves will continue to occur in the future and pose a significant health risk to older people. The 2009/10 coldwave resulted in 25,400 excess winter deaths in England and Wales, the majority amongst those aged 75 and over.
"Service providers must take into account the increasing numbers of retired people living in rural settlements and moving to the coast. In some areas the oldest population will more than double by 2031, so needs for health and social care provision will increase. When extreme weather events occur, special measures are needed to make sure people have access to the care they need in the community as well as in hospitals. Planning is important to try to keep road networks and utilities functioning, to ensure community care teams can reach their clients, and to help people manage in their homes in extreme weather."
The research team is looking at the health and social care systems that are important for older people and the built infrastructures that support these systems. The team carried out analyses using a range of data sources including the latest climate and demographic projections in order to map, across England, those geographical areas which are likely to see the most rapid changes in weather-related hazards under climate change and in the vulnerability of the older population.
Co-author, Professor Dr Dimitry Val, Heriot-Watt University, said: "Scotland has just experienced two very harsh winters and the problems faced by the elderly have been particularly acute, especially in rural areas. The combination of extreme weather coupled with increasing numbers of older people living in the UK is likely to increase the risks for infrastructure including hospitals and health centres."
Co-author, Professor Mark Stewart, Centre for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability, University of Newcastle, Australia, said: "The impacts of a changing climate are predicted to be quite severe for Australia, and particularly so for coastal regions where floods, cyclones and rising sea levels can wreak havoc on many communities. This research will help guide decision-makers about which climate adaptation strategies will best reduce the vulnerability of elderly populations in Australia."
The project team is working with three local authorities, Horsham District Council, West Sussex County Council, and the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to develop a range of maps and tools to help local agencies. The partnership aims to increase the resilience of built infrastructure to help ensure the continuity of health and social care at times of increased strain and demand.
Cllr Robert Nye, Leader of Horsham District Council, said: "The snowfall in the last couple of winters has shown the impact that extreme weather can have on many people in the UK. Future changes to the climate could mean that we experience more extreme weather, such as heat waves and flooding. Such events can have a disproportionate impact on older vulnerable people, particularly where they are reliant on health and social care."
"The Horsham District in the south of England is due to experience a rapid increase in the number of people over the age of 60 in the next 20 years. With this in mind, Horsham District Council has started work on identifying the impacts that this could have on our many services and what changes will be needed."
"This study, carried out and funded by Durham University and Heriot Watt University, will make an invaluable contribution to the information that we have and enable us to prepare more effectively for extreme weather events."
West Sussex County Council Deputy Leader Lionel Barnard, who has responsibility for Environment, said: "The project with BIOPICCC forms part of our adaptation work - helping all the County Council's services to adapt to a changing climate. It will help ensure that we will be able to continue to deliver critical services even during more frequent extreme weather events."
East Riding of Yorkshire Council's Portfolio Holder for Environment, Housing and Planning, Cllr Symon Fraser said: "This work should help to highlight the challenges and needs facing the long term planning of housing and health and social care service provision for older people and the effect that climate change will have on it."
Co-author, Katie Oven, Department of Geography, Durham University, said: "Our built infrastructure, including transportation and communication systems, buildings, power lines and care services are susceptible to extreme weather events and increased demands from an ageing population. We have to make these infrastructures and services more resilient.
"This is a big challenge for local authorities with limited resources attempting to create resilient environments in areas of increasing vulnerability."
The next phase of the project will involve case study work with local authorities to examine the impact of extreme weather on health and social care delivery and how to make these systems more resilient. Issues identified in the pilot study include the importance of coordination between agencies.
The BIOPICCC project is funded by the UK Government's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of a programme on Adaptation and Resilience in a Changing Climate.