Communicating Flood Risk - Connecting with people!

Humber in a Box. Photo credit - Mike Park, University of Hull
Catherine Morgan
Tuesday, 17th November 2015

The need for those us involved in Flood Risk Management research to engage with the public has never been more apparent. I live and work in Hull, a city that lies on the banks of the Humber Estuary and therefore, at risk of tidal flooding. However, it is difficult to communicate that risk to the public, more so than other forms of flooding, even despite the devastation caused around the Humber by a tidal storm surge in December 5th 2013. It is even more difficult to communicate the research, strategies and policies that are developed to mitigate that risk and this creates a perception among the public that no one is doing anything about it.

While the perception may be misinformed, it is not just the public who fail to appreciate this. Earlier this year, a senior member of the Policy team at the Town and Country Planning Association questioned whether Hull would still exist in 2100, and he asserted that nationwide only one or two people were investigating this – a stark contrast to the 100 or more delegates at the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Annual Assembly working on Flood Risk management policy, planning or research!

In November, the National Trust released their report - Shifting Shores – and stated that independent evidence showed  “we are ignoring the known risks of flood and erosion at the coast”, although this was largely in relation to the location of new builds.

I believe both examples are well meaning, are intended to provoke discussion and action on an issue that clearly needs both. However, despite the notable trustworthiness of both of these organisations, and the great work to raise awareness of these issues,  there is an element of alarmism to the information they are communicating to the public. This, alongside articles in mainstream media, is largely how the general public are receiving information about Flood Risk Management Practices in the UK.   Unless we as researchers and practitioners begin to seriously consider how we can best get our message out there, this is the information the public will receive - and believe.

In my opinion, and from my experience, the best way to do this is through conversation. I see a lot of Twitter accounts that simply distribute information but this is the online equivalent of standing on the street corner, loud speaker in hand, shouting at passing pedestrians. You’re disseminating your information, sure, but is anybody listening? And if they are, will they care? If you use a social media account and you want it to be effective, you have to make it a two-way channel.

To have a conversation you need to start one, and you can’t rely on the public coming to you. You have to get out there. Our research uses a numerical model to simulate the flood risk in the Humber Estuary, particularly with predicted sea level rise, and we work closely with the Environment Agency. To provoke conversation I had some very clever students from our Department of Computer Science build our model into a 3D gaming environment, which the user is immersed into via an Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset – this proved very popular! The model simulates present day tidal conditions in the Humber, and the user can manipulate it by raising the sea level.

When people engage with  ‘Humber in a Box’, as it is known, they can see for themselves the impact of future impacts on the river. For example, they can  raise sea level by 1 m and witness very little flooding around the Estuary, including Hull – our models show that the defences can cope with increased tides of this magnitude. Obviously, a great deal more pressure would be placed on the defences in the event of another significant storm surge.  These interactions, around five minutes, allow me to engage with the user and those with them, and tell them about our research and the Humber Flood Risk Management Strategy of the Environment Agency. The crucial point here is that people can engage with the scientific tools, visualise the evidence, ask questions, and get answers from well-informed researchers.   They almost always leave with a handful of leaflets and I hope some of them sign up for the Flood Aware flood warnings.

I plan to produce more of these types of applications, under the banner of SeriousGeoGames, and make them freely available - so do keep your eyes on the website or Twitter account.

We need to make sure the public are getting the right message. We need to ensure that public figures, and those involved in policy are well-informed, and have accurate information at hand when they talk to the public.  Of course it’s true that we need to make sure that people are aware of the extent of the risks from flooding and coastal erosion, and how this is going to evolve in the future, but we especially need them to know that an awful lot of work, research and investment is going on to reduce that risk to the minimum – and there’s only one way they’ll find out and that’s if  we engage them in the discussion.

Chris Skinner is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Hull, working on the NERC-Flash Flooding from Intense Rainfall project. His previous work on the Dynamic Humber Project used numerical modelling to simulate the flooding of the December 5th 2013 storm surge in the Humber.