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By Professor Hannah Cloke, hydrologist, Water@Reading

If you knew there was a strong chance that your local river was about to burst its banks and sweep away your house, you’d get yourself, and your family, out of harm’s way.

Yet tragically, despite major advances in flood forecasting, hundreds of people every year still die in floods. Either warnings are not getting through, or people and authorities are failing to take appropriate action.

Severe flooding brought on by a strong coastal El Nino has left more than 90 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless in Northern Peru [photo: Maria-Helena Ramos]

This month has again seen severe flooding in many parts of the world, including Peru and Australia, leading to loss of life and destruction of homes and livelihoods.

We will never be able to stop such awful floods. But there are some vital steps that we can take to reduce the risk from these events and to save lives.

In recent years we have been taking great strides in our capability to provide early flood warnings, so that people can prepare for upcoming floods – often before it even starts to rain.

The Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading works alongside flood forecasters to develop better forecasts and warnings, such as those of the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) and the Global Flood Awareness System (GloFAS), part of the EU’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service.

But how do we know if we’re doing a good job? How can we convince people that the warnings are accurate, and worth acting on?

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By Rebecca Emerton, Water@Reading research group

When an El Niño is declared, or even forecast, we think back to memorable past El Niños (such as 1997/98), and begin to ask whether we will see the same impacts. Will California receive a lot of rainfall? Will we see droughts in tropical Asia and Australia? Will Peru experience the same devastating floods as in 1997/98, and 1982/83?

El Niño and La Niña, which see changes in the ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, are well known to affect weather, and indeed river flow and flooding, around the globe. But how well can we estimate the potential impacts of El Niño and La Niña, and how likely flooding is to occur?

This question is what some of us in the Water@Reading research group at the University of Reading have been looking to answer in our recent publication in Nature Communications.

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