Did you experience drought of ’76? University researchers want to hear tales of historic dry summer

blog image from UWE Press Aug 2016

Taken from UWE News Releases: http://info.uwe.ac.uk/news/uwenews/news.aspx?id=3426

Researchers are urging people who experienced the 1976 drought to share their stories for an academic project.

On the 40th anniversary of the country’s most severe water shortage in living memory, academics from a team led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) are seeking accounts of how Britons coped.

Responses will contribute towards a £3.2m project named Drought Risk and You (DRY), which is aimed at providing new evidence for managing future droughts that draws across science and experience.

Temperatures of 30oC or above were recorded for 16 consecutive days during the heatwave of June 1976 in the South East, and many reservoirs dried up during a predominantly dry spell that gripped the nation.

UWE Bristol’s Professor Lindsey McEwen, who is leading the DRY project, said: “We would very much like to hear from people with memories of drought and water scarcity – stories that need to be heard when we prepare for increased future risks of drought.

“It is timely to reflect on what memories and knowledge persist from that period, which spanned over a year, when a dry winter was followed by a dry summer.

“Do memories of the event tell us anything useful about our resilience to future droughts, our perceptions of hot weather and the concerns for water scarcity? The science tells us that the heatwave in June was exceptional by UK standards. The water deficit below the average continued over several months. This drought stands out in terms of its duration and severity in the UK hydrological record of the last 100 years.

“What competing narratives would we find by searching in the archives – stories of parents struggling to run families, stand pipes and water rationing, women carrying water, young people enjoying the sunshine, drinks companies’ record sales?

“Memories that were only moderately stressed are frequently those of community cohesion, parched grass, drinking wine with neighbours in public spaces, outdoor living. Rather different memories were archived at the time from those directly affected by extreme stresses in the South East and South West – running families, farms and businesses.”

Loughborough University’s Michael Wilson, who is also working on the project, said, “Climate change itself is one of the greatest global threats facing us and requires collective action on a massive scale to address it. However, partly because the science behind climate change is so very complex, the public debate has been dominated by discourses of expertise, thus excluding large parts of the population from engaging. Human beings are storytelling animals and by introducing storytelling into the climate change discussion, we potentially open the door for much wider public engagement, capture expertise from beyond the academic community and bring new, fresh, previously unheard voices into the conversation.”

The DRY project, which began in 2014 and will continue for another two years, will bring together information about droughts from a wide variety of sources to help ensure the country is better prepared for another extreme water shortage.

It will explore how water resources can be shared more fairly during droughts and aims to establish a stronger understanding of the needs of a wide range of water-users including water companies, businesses of different sizes, farmers and horticulturalists, river and canal managers, public health organisations and the public in their houses, gardens and allotments.

The four-year interdisciplinary project is bringing together arts, humanities and social sciences with expertise in hydrology, meteorology, agriculture and ecology from eight universities and research institutes.

Joanne Garde-Hansen, Reader in Culture, Media and Communication, University of Warwick, says, “The representation of drought in the media is interesting because images of drought and hot weather as iconic events are nowhere near as newsworthy as floods, which are dramatic and devastating, offering media organisations a ‘spectacle’ in a time constrained package. Drought is less spectacular, slow and creeping, while ‘heat waves’ in the UK carry memories of 1970s nostalgia. Real stories of water scarcity in the United Kingdom have been silent and invisible. The DRY project is asking for the public’s help so we can record how they have been affected.”

Professor McEwen, from UWE’s Faculty of Environment and Technology, adds, “We are looking at the effects of drought at a variety of scales, from small plots to the entire catchment area of a river. We have set up drought experiments in rural areas and are using these as stimuli for conversations with users about drought risk and how to mitigate this. We are developing a science-narrative approach, as a more reflective and informal way of exchanging information.”

The project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Biotechnology and Biological SciencesResearch Council (BBSRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Ragab Ragab, from NERC’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology at Wallingford, said, “It is evident nowadays that the UK has been subjected to unprecedented events of extreme weather. For example, winter 2013-2014 was marked with flood followed by drought in March 2014. The problem we are facing now is how we build community resilience adapted and able to cope with such changing climate. The UK Met Office indicated that such ‘extreme events’ will become increasingly regular in the future. Scientists are now focusing on solutions to protect the environment from the damage caused by drought extreme events as well as flooding. This project will focus on developing solutions, and risk management strategies for short and long term drought events.”

The study will focus on the impact of drought on seven water catchments in England, Wales and Scotland. These are the Cornwall River Fowey; River Frome (Bristol); River Pang (Wiltshire); Bevills Leam (Fenlands); Afon Ebbw (South Wales); River Don (Sheffield), and the River Eden (Fife, Scotland).

The research team includes UWE Bristol, Loughborough University, NERC’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Harper Adams University, University of Sheffield, University of Warwick, University of Exeter, University of Dundee and Climate Outreach.

For more information about the project and the catchments involved, please see DRYproject.co.uk or follow @Project_DRY on Twitter

6 thoughts on “Did you experience drought of ’76? University researchers want to hear tales of historic dry summer

  • August 3, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    The summer of 76 is etched on my memory along with probably the damage to my teenage skin. I was 14 years old and just remember the summer holidays being the longest and hottest ever. We went camping with the family for two weeks on the North Devon Coast at Mortehoe. The fact that we could camp on the top of a cliff edge was testament to the extraordinary weather. For me it was just a blissful time in the main – I had no worries or cares. But I do remember desperately wanting it to rain by the end of the summer and being very relieved when things returned to normal. I think how differently I feel now and am worried about climate change. Back then no one talked about climate change. It was just the Summer of 76.

  • August 4, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    I live in Cornwall. My wife & I married in March 1976. I recall seeing hedgerows burst into flames through the summer as we drove about the county. Livestock experienced a particularly hard time with water sources drying up. Large cracks appeared in the fields several inches wide & couple of feet deep. Road surfaces melted in the heat so beach sand was spread over the roads. We had used all our hay/haylage feeding our horses, as the grass had died, with no idea how we would cope during the winter months. I remember large lorry loads of straw being brought down from East Anglia for animal feed. At the time I was employed as a supervisory engineer with a local china clay firm where huge quantities of water were used in the mining & refining of china clay. We all worked around the clock extra duties to install pumps and pipelines to source water from flooded redundant clay pits to meet the demands of the industry. Men and animals alike were all mighty relieved when the rains eventually came. It might have been ok for the tourists but no fun for those who had to earn a living off the land. Real hard time is what I remember.

  • August 5, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    I was at school in that time in Faversham, Kent. I remember that almost every lunchtime we would skip off to the local open air swimming pool to cool off – and sometimes after school as well. There were water shortages of course, but that was for my parents to worry about.
    At the end of July I was in Wicklow, Ireland. I remember playing golf at Wicklow GC and there were plagues of ladybirds. Several times when you hit a high shot, as the ball landed, a ‘splash’ of ladybirds would take off.

  • August 17, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    I was 26 at the time and Volunteering as a outdoor pursuit instructor with a small private organisation on Dartmoor. We worked with young handicapped people, mainly Thalidomide victims. Our main water supply was piped from a spring, which never ran dry. I remember walking on the Northern Moor and being able to walk over previously very wet bogs. Many of the upper reaches of the rivers, Dart, Teign & Oke were dry. As was the Fernworthy Reservoir.

    I went for a swim early every morning in the River Dart, very refreshing and if I stood in the sun for ten minutes I was completely dry. The rain returned on August Bank Holiday Sunday with a down pour & a power cut. In the previous week Denis Howell had been appointed ‘Minister for Drought’ and he was visiting the South West at the time.

  • August 29, 2016 at 10:36 am

    I was pregnant in 1976 , due date 1st October, but 10 days late! I recall a very very hot summer with long humid nights. I found it very difficult to get comfortable.
    As a former Police Officer were allowed to patrol without wearing a tie and to wear sunnies in the car. We were banned from cleaning our police cars due to a shortage of water. Both of these issues were a complete change in the normal way we were allowed to work. A lot of die hards refused to adapt.
    My wife being very pregnant found sleeping very hard as did I.

  • September 21, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    I had a 13 month old and was working full time and the water was turned off so it was very difficult. We all had to queue for the standpipe down the road. There was a run on buckets and I always ensure that I have several in store. Lots of milk was drunk. Every drop of water was re-used if at all possible. The whole countryside turned brown and wild fires were a hazard, people were begged not to light fires anywhere.
    Some water was delivered,, but no where near enough. I do recall seeing lorry loads of hay and straw coming into the county from elsewhere. You were encouraged to report anyone watering their gardens or cars before standpipes were introduced.
    For years afterwards the University of Exeter toilets in some buildings had stickers asking you not to flush unless it was really necessary and you were urged to bath with a friend.
    I joined SW OFWAT shortly after and was very aware of all the work SWW was doing to assure future supplies. One of the reasons our bills are so high.


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