The Historic Droughts project involves eight institutions across the UK, read about the contribution of each one below: 

The British Geological Survey is developing a detailed understanding of groundwater aspects of droughts in the UK from c.1870s to the present. The objective is to characterise the magnitude, intensity and duration of groundwater droughts through analysis of the observational and reconstructed groundwater level records. This quantitative analysis is being placed in the wider context of environmental and societal drivers, pressures and responses. Where the observational record allows, a dynamic model of the spatio-temporal evolution of the individual groundwater droughts is being developed as part of a joint hydrometerological analysis into the drivers and propagation of drought episodes in the UK, in collaboration with project partners in the Met Office and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.


The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology is characterising historic droughts from a hydrological perspective. The objective is to quantify the severity and duration of major drought events from the c.1870s to the present. As most river flow records only extend back to the 1960s, one of the main activities will be the reconstruction of historic droughts using a novel hydrological modelling framework. Project partners in the Met Office will provide newly rescued climate datasets that will broaden our understanding of hydrological droughts around the turn of the 20th Century (e.g. the ‘Long Drought’ of 1890-1910). There is a need to assess a wider range of historic events to enhance our understanding of the drivers and characteristics of drought. Collaborative work with the Met Office and the British Geological Survey will assess how droughts propagate through the hydrological cycle, using the reconstructed series to provide a much longer-term view on how and why droughts develop in the UK from a hydrometeorological perspective.


Cranfield UniversityCranfield University is analysing past droughts from an agricultural perspective. The main objective is to improve the understanding of how past drought events have impacted the agricultural sector in the UK, and how farmers have adapted their businesses to this natural hazard. To achieve this, a range of qualitative and quantitative data will be compiled, both from grey literature and scientific papers. In addition, an online survey and interviews with growers and key stakeholders in the food supply chain will be used to provide information and memories of previous drought events. A better knowledge of how droughts have affected agriculture in the past could inform improved decision making at different levels to reduce the impacts of future drought events.


The University of Exeter is undertaking research on the role and value of recorded oral testimonies in understanding the ways in which drought events unfold and the implications these can have for effective policy making and drought management. Researchers in Human Geography are currently in the process of recording 100 oral testimonies with individuals and groups who have lived through drought events, which for them have made a memorable impact on their lives and livelihoods. Contributors are drawn from across the UK and across a broad spectrum of interests from housewives to water managers and greenkeepers to whisky distillers. This research has two main objectives; firstly, to show that oral recordings can provide a level of detail and geographical resolution that is frequently missed by quantitative data collection, ensuring a more comprehensive picture of the impacts of drought events; secondly, to support the many partners in the Drought and Water Scarcity Programme in understanding the complex, situated and diverse ways in which different groups are impacted and respond during a drought event. The geographical reach of the research will enable us to appreciate the role of place in the evolution and management of drought events.


HR Wallingford is analysing the impact of historic drought events on public water supply and the resulting evolution of the water supply systems over time. The public water supply infrastructure that exists today (e.g. reservoirs, river and groundwater abstractions) has been developed in order to cope with increased demands (e.g. increasing population) but also in response to drought events which the supply system at the time could not adequately manage. Through case studies, the objective is to reconstruct historic water supply system performance during past drought events, implementing changes to the evolving supply system over time, in order to understand how the risk of drought to public water supply has changed. Identifying how water supply systems have been developed and managed in response to historic droughts will provide key lessons to inform future water supply planning.

Based at Lancaster University, the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science is assessing public discourse – what we talk about when we talk about droughts – using two types of data. 1) News media: newspaper material from late 19th century to present. This includes a) a large collection of 19th century newspapers compiled by the British Library; b) full texts published by The Times in 19th and 20th centuries; and c) a corpus of contemporary British newspapers: all texts referring to droughts and water scarcity that have been published by major national and Scottish newspapers, broadsheet and tabloids, from 1990 to 2014. 2) Social media: UK Tweets about droughts during the 2010-2012 drought. To analyse such substantial body of linguistic data, critical discourse analysis (CDA) will be combined with corpus linguistics (CL) methods. This combined CDA/CL approach enables researchers to examine society’s perception of droughts in depth and on an unprecedented scale. The analysis also aims to trace changes in people’s understanding of and attitudes towards droughts over time as well as to examine the crossover between social media and printed press.


The Met Office is providing meteorological datasets that underpin work across the project. Existing rainfall grids covering the UK at 5km resolution are being extended; for daily grids, to cover the period before 1960, and for monthly grids, to cover the period before 1910. The digitisation of rescued and recovered data will increase the length of drought climatologies and the number of events available for analysis. Compared to grids calculated from the limited amount of data previously available on the digital archive, much more detailed estimates of spatial variations in rainfall can be provided. The extended data will primarily cover rainfall and temperature but may also extend to other meteorological variables relevant to the hydrological cycle.


Based at the University of Oxford, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies is tracing the evolution of the legal and economic regulatory framework for drought in the UK. The purpose of this analysis is to understand how the range of regulatory tools available to prevent and manage drought have changed over time, and whether evolution in the formal regulatory framework for drought can be associated with improved drought management ‘on the ground’. This socio-legal research draws on a range of data sources, including analysis of Hansard debates in relation to key drought episodes, as well as analysis of legislation and public policy documents.