'Risk to life' in UK storm forecast
Flooded England is facing a new barrage: a winter storm bearing ferocious winds, prompting a rare "red warning" from Britain's weather service.
Some areas could get up to 7cm of rain - a month's worth - by Friday, the Met Office says.
The office issued the first red warning of the winter, indicating the coming storm carries a "risk to life" and ''exceptionally strong winds''. It is the most severe level of threat.
The latest round of bad weather slammed into Britain's west coast on Wednesday (local time) with torrential rain and winds gusting up to 170kmh. Trucks were toppled, trees were felled and a major chunk of the railway was closed.
The website of rail operator Virgin Trains greeted visitors with the words: ''Do Not Travel.''
London itself was expected to be safe from the flooding since it's protected by the Thames Barrier, a series of 20m high metal gates across the entire river.
The massive gates can be closed to stop the tide from coming up the Thames, which gives more space for the river to handle excess water from upstream. At low tide, the Thames Barrier is then opened and the floodwaters flow to the sea.
LINK TO CLIMATE CHANGE
The Met Office says it sees the tentacles of climate change in a spate of storms and floods battering the country, but has stopped short of saying that global warming directly caused the extreme conditions.
England, which has been lashed by wind and rain since December, had its wettest January since records began in 1766.
The resulting floods have drenched the southwestern coast of England, the low-lying Somerset Levels and the Thames Valley west of London, where hundreds of properties have been swamped after the Thames burst its banks.
Britain's Met Office, the nation's weather agency, said in a paper published this week that ''there is no definitive answer'' on the role played by climate change in the recent weather and floods.
But it said there is ''an increasing body of evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense,'' probably due to a warming world.
Met Office chief scientist Julia Slingo told the BBC that ''all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change''.
It was the latest in a series of assertions by weather agencies linking extreme weather events with human-made global warming.
Last year the Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said events ranging from Superstorm Sandy flooding to US heat waves to extreme rainfall in Australia and New Zealand had all been made more likely by climate change.
The Met office study discusses evidence of increasingly extreme weather events and links both Britain's damp winter and the extreme cold that has hit the United States and Canada to ''perturbations'' in the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean and North America. But it does not say outright that global warming caused the flooding.
To do that, scientists take months, sometimes years, to conduct detailed computer simulations - and the report said such research was needed in this case.
In the United States, NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling said the Met Office study ''identifies many challenges for research'' rather than drawing firm conclusions.
But Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said it was ''a remarkably blunt report for a group that is typically characterized by a staid approach''.
''The bottom line is this: we are indeed now seeing with our very eyes the impacts of climate change on severe weather, record heat, drought, more intense hurricane activity,'' Mann said in an email.
''The only question at this point is how far downstream this treacherous torrent we are going to paddle.''
A similar question - when will it end? - was being asked by many Britons, from flooded farmers to riverside residents piling sandbags against the encroaching waters of the Thames.
''I tried to prepare for this, I bought 100 pounds of sand and I called the council,'' said Suhair Al-Fouadi, a resident of the town of Egham, who woke Wednesday to find 30cm of water in her house.
''But they would do nothing. Now I have water from the sewer coming in through my doors.''
CAMERON UNDER PRESSURE
British Prime Minister David Cameron came under pressure on Wednesday (local time) to spell out where he would find the money for his pledge to spend whatever was needed to help those affected by severe flooding in England.
Parts of southwest England have been under water for weeks after the country's wettest January in nearly 250 years, with more densely populated areas near London also hit by flooding in the last few days as the rainy weather continued into February.
Several politicians who have donned rubber boots to wade through muddy waters on visits to flooded areas have received a rough ride from residents angry at a perceived slow response to the crisis and a lack of funding for flood prevention measures.
On Tuesday (NZT Wednesday), Cameron said "money was no object" in the relief effort, a pledge his critics said was at odds with the austerity policy of his government, which has made deep spending cuts in the last few years to tackle a record peacetime budget deficit.
Highlighting comments by Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin earlier that there was no "blank cheque" for flood spending, opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband asked Cameron exactly what his promise covered.
Speaking at the prime minister's weekly parliamentary grilling, Miliband also questioned plans to cut the number of staff at the Environment Agency dealing with floods.
"If money is no object ... is he committing now to reconsider these redundancies?" he asked, expressing doubts about what he called Cameron's "grand promise" of financial aid.
Reiterating his spending pledge on Wednesday, Cameron gave details of plans to help those affected, saying homeowners and businesses would get grants of up to £5000 (NZ$8200) each to help with repairs and future flood defences.
Businesses would also be able to claim tax relief, while a £10 million (NZ$20m) fund would be made available to farmers.
Earlier Cameron's official spokesman said the government had "a number of contingency funds".
On top of 16 severe flood warnings which remained in place, the Met Office issued its highest level of alert for expected winds on Wednesday, saying parts of Wales and northwest England could face gusts of up to 160kmh.
Specialists at PwC and Deloitte say insurers could face a bill of about £500m for the damage caused by flooding, which has affected 5500 homes since early December.
Several major banks, including Santander, HSBC and RBS, have announced help for flood-hit households and businesses through measures such as loan repayment holidays and increased overdrafts.
Cameron, who had already last week announced an extra £130m (NZ$260m) of state money to help tackle the floods, said the banks' support would be worth more than £750m (NZ$1.5 billion).