Changing precipitation trends in the UK uplands

In 2018 the UK Met Office released the latest climate change projections for the UK (UKCP18). Projections indicate that the UK’s climate is set to change in the years ahead due to anthropogenic climate change driven by atmospheric carbon emissions. Models suggest the climate will become  warmer and more extreme with heavier rainfall. UK upland areas (>250m above sea level) as marginal agricultural areas, the location of habitats with high carbon importance, and as the gathering ground for the majority of freshwater and river systems,  are particularly important areas to assess changes in rainfall.

Our research paper (Murphy et al., 2019) examined rainfall on Dartmoor and Plymouth over more than 130 years and suggested that even the significant increases in upland rainfall projected by UKCP18 might underestimate what we could expect over the coming years.  This discrepancy could have  cascading impacts on vegetation, carbon storage,  agricultural productivity and flood risk. Indeed, ongoing uncertainty in rainfall response to human induced global warming presents a significant challenge for responding appropriately.

In the late bronze age period climate change forced land abandonment and intense competition for resources (Turney et al., 2016), could it be that pronounced 21st century climate change in the UK uplands causes similar levels of social and environmental upheaval?

It is evidently clear, the combination of higher rainfall totals, and over-compacted soils leaves upland and downstream communities vulnerable to enhanced river flooding. Flooding which blights peoples lives and causes billions (£) of damage and loss of income.

I was lucky enough to meet Buckfastleigh Flood Action Group over the last few years, they are a fantastic group trying to make changes and keep the community prepared for flooding by taking preventative and responsive action in collaboration with the Environment Agency.  Buckfastleigh was hit by a flood in November 2012 and I have heard first hand from residents the impact on their lives then and now. The stories were harrowing – homes and belongings ruined, and an ongoing mental health crisis.

What was clear then, and is becoming clearer day by day, is that as a society we must support local communities to prepare for a changing climate. Particularly when the heavy rainfall events so far experienced may just be a taste of whats to come!

A summary of our paper is available via the University of Plymouth webpage:

The full scientific article (Murphy et al., 2019 – can be accessed for free via Researchgate –


Met Office UKCP projections –

Murphy TR, Hanley ME, Ellis JE, Lunt PH (2019) Deviation between projected and observed precipitation trends greater with altitude. Climate Research 79: 77-89.

Turney, C.S.M., Jones, R.T., Thomas, Z.A., Palmer, J.G., Brown D. (2016). Extreme wet conditions coincident with Bronze Age abandonment of upland areas in Britain. Anthropocene, 13, 69-79.