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Climate Change Canary – Looe: The Most Flooded Town in the UK

Looe town at times is the Venice of the West: knee-deep in water which rises from sandy foundations beneath the streets, emerging from storm drains designed to take water away but which work just as well in reverse. These floods are a frequent occurrence – so much so that Looe has the dubious honour of being the most frequently flooded town in the entire United Kingdom. 

flooded fishing town

Flood Factors - Proximate Causes

Spring tides, a southerly wind, big swell and heavy torrents of rain turning the river brown are the meteorological four-horsemen promising the torments of one of Looe’s frequent floods. 

The first of these immediate flood factors is High tides. A higher than average tide fills up the estuarine harbour and river. However alone even the highest tides don’t overflow the quays and flood the town. 

Second then is needed a wind from the south – which pushes water and waves up the north-south harbour which begins to lap over the quay on the highest wind-pushed surges. This wind can drive even more water in if there is already a big swell to begin with adding into the already boiling torrents surging in the harbour.

Still however even this confluence of factors would drain away quickly as the tide recedes – if it weren’t for the ubiquitous British aerial accompaniment: rain. This key factor, seems crucial to explaining why on some of the highest tides without rain most of the town remains dry, yet on lower ones with rain it floods the entire town far from the rivers edge. The wise resident knows as soon as the rain begins to pound on a high tide – what were once roads will become streams and soon torrents feeding into the flood coming from the sea. 


flooded fields

Local Human Causes

A high tide, bad winds and lots of rain alone – unless unusually heavy – isn’t always a forgone flood – it depends on how long it takes to get into the river, to meet with the high tide & how well it can drain safely away into other soak aways. 

However changing the environment has shrunk this soak time. With fields in the valley above ploughed into a thousand tiny gutters launching the water sliding down at speed. Roads & new developments on the hill sides gathering rain that would in past times soak away into soil and roots – now force feeding in minutes the already full river. 


Fountains of Flood Water

Increasingly-erratic weather isn’t helping either. Longer dryer spells between normal rains allow dust, sand and debris to gather everywhere on the now impermeable roads –  which in the following now-heavier intense rains block every drain designed for the less intense weather of the last century. These blocked drains turn many of the gutters and drains the steep hills into Las Vegas style fountains – water shooting down roadside gutters, hitting debris and flying up in messy jets.

This isn’t the only impact of climate change though. 

rusted machinery

Linking the Local Impact to Global Climate Change

The rise of fossil fuel powered engines has been a mixed blessing for the town. This new power first doomed Looe’s iconic sailing Luggers but then opened up the town for visitors from further afield creating the tourism trade – Looe’s main income today. The latest challenge posed by the modern world is climate change – which with no action may be the end of the town. We’ve already hinted at the effects of erratic weather – but it’s sea level rise that is the most feared impact.

Sea level rise, with the high tide mark predicted to rise a whole metre within the next 80 years here in Looe, will kill the community unless we tackle it.

A fraction of that rise would make flooding a weekly occurrence. Unable to cope with the bigger floods businesses would close, the town would be abandoned. Overtime the rising water will weaken the sides of the valley causing more frequent landslides. An issue which has already tragically claimed the lives of residents as their homes collapsed.

Looe would be both buried and drowned. But this doesn’t have to be the towns fate.


wave crashing on harbour wall

Fighting the Flooding

Looe Harbour has its own brave new sea defence planned. Like London’s great tidal gate on the river Thames the Harbour Commissioners are gaining support for a new outer harbour scheme – building a gate to keep the ravages of nature at bay.

Smaller changes have had big impacts: stopping cars driving through flood waters causing waves to flood shops & homes; more frequently cleaning storm drains and roads; building in flood barriers into doors; inbuilt sensor pumps, ready to pump out floodwater in the night; tiling lower floors and so many other local innovations all have lessened the impacts.

Ultimately Looe’s residents – like all others at the bleeding edge of the global environmental crisis – can’t tackle the global change alone. We’re canaries in the coalmine  – the ones living lives most susceptible to the changes happening in our world.  Our role, like the others is to do our bit, and call out to everyone the warning. 

Whilst the world works to change Looe’s resilience will continue – Looe may be historic – but we aren’t ready for it to become history.

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