A lovely day at the beach in Wales

It was a glorious sunny day in Cardiff that had me springing out of bed to get across to the Novotel Hotel for the ICE Wales National Flooding Conference 2018, for today I would be taking charge of the JBA Trust sandbox. I had seen the Youtube videos and understood the concepts behind how the 3D camera, projector and basic flood simulator would work together to create an augmented reality playground for the discerning flood professional. I had also been warned that the equipment could take about two hours to setup, so was first on the scene at a sprightly 7am to start setting up.

The interactive sandbox

The Augmented Reality Sandbox is a very interactive visualisation tool that shows how topography affects water moving through a catchment. Participants can shape real sand to create their own catchments which are then ‘augmented’ in real time by a projector which shows a coloured elevation map and contour lines. By holding a hand above the sand, participants can ‘make it rain’ and then watch how the virtual water flows through the catchment in real time and explore how changes in land use affect flooding.

The engineer in me had no trouble in setting up the apparatus, and within 20 minutes I thought we were almost done. Then we realised the instructions went on for another ten pages, delving ever deeper into Linux command prompts, calibration equations, stretch values and moving a CD around the sand. People started to arrive, other exhibitors grinned as their displays popped up and they laid out their pens and boiled sweets, and we emptied and filled the sandbox of sand for the umpteen time. This was not the imagined day at the beach, and I was missing the morning coffee! But finally, the calibration lights went green and we were up and running. And it had only taken the combined efforts of three of JBA’s Technical Directors.

The response for the augmented reality sandbox was fantastic and we were overwhelmed with interest. ICE Wales were brilliant as always in organising the event and accommodating our unusual requirements. Alongside the sandbox we were also able to demonstrate the new Natural Flood Management (NFM) opportunity and benefit maps for Wales. This tied in nicely with the presentation given by Jenny Dickinson of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) about all the work that NRW are doing to support a drive towards NFM in Wales.

Is the past still a reliable guide to the future?

Duncan Faulkner’s presentation on ‘Is the past still a reliable guide to the future?’ had people thinking hard about the uncertainties involved in the estimation of flood flows. We typically assume that past hydrological conditions will be a reasonable guide to what will happen in the future, usually with some adjustment to allow for the possible impacts of climate change. This assumption is becoming increasingly hard to believe given the frequency of severe flooding in some parts of the UK over the past 10-15 years, with evidence for upward trends in peak river flows at a third of gauges in Wales. Duncan’s presentation described the application of innovative hydrological methods that break free from the assumption that past floods all follow the same statistical distribution. The results of this non-stationary flood frequency analysis show that flood flows for a given probability can be underestimated by conventional methods such as the industry-standard FEH, by up to 25% for Welsh rivers.

It is encouraging in Wales that flooding is given such keen political interest and support. It was therefore excellent to listen to Hannah Blythyn AM, Minister for Environment, give the keynote speech on the National Strategy for Flood & Coast and openly respond to questions. Phil Chatfield, Welsh Government, later expanded on the impending introduction of SuDS Approval Bodies in Wales and how Wales is leading the UK in of SuDS adoption and implementation of “real SuDS” and not just “bomb craters”.

We had sun, sand, and ‘virtual water’, the only thing that was missing was the ice cream. Maybe next year…

Want to know more?

For more information on our work in Wales please email George Baker.

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