In most of the developed world, we have built our homes in areas that are often at risk of flooding, both from natural causes like tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as from climate change. As a result, floods are a regular part of life in the developed world. However, flooding has become more common in recent years and caused significant damage in some regions. As such, climate change could lead to more intense flooding in many parts of the world.
More than 17 million people in Germany are taking part in a national insurance scheme to help pay for flood damage. The flooding has highlighted a problem for coastal areas across the country: the slow process of raising defences against climate change.
BERLIN— When German politicians rushed to the sites of last week’s terrible floods, which killed over 170 people throughout the nation, they all agreed on one thing, regardless of their political affiliations: the record rainfalls and subsequent tragedy were caused by climate change.
Temperatures are rising, according to scientific agreement, and this is increasing the quantity of moisture in the sky, which may lead to heavier downpours. There’s also evidence that severe weather events like heat waves, droughts, floods, and storms are becoming more often.
Scientists, on the other hand, believe it may be difficult to pinpoint the origin of particular severe occurrences. Nonetheless, they argue that governments should begin planning for the potential of such events. According to them, factors such as a lack of preparation and a failure to listen warnings about impending floods made the uncommon occurrence much more deadly than it would have been otherwise.
“[The death toll] is the result of a failure to cope with climate change, not climate change itself,” said Liz Stephens, an associate professor at Reading University in the United Kingdom’s Department of Geography and Environmental Science.
Following the floods, Armin Laschet, the leader of Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the front-runner to succeed her as chancellor, called for stronger climate-change measures. Annalena Baerbock, the head of the opposition Greens, visited the devastated area and connected the events to climate change, as did other politicians from the center-right to the center-left.
On July 15, flood waters scattered debris in a roadway in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
Getty Images/Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse
Ms. Merkel, a trained scientist, was more nuanced: she linked the floods to climate change in the context of severe weather becoming more frequent, but she argued that one particular flood could not be blamed on climate change.
By comparison, the debate about whether better disaster preparedness could have saved lives has been more muted, with only some members of small opposition parties raising questions about authorities’ responsibilities for the loss of life.
Even among scientists who believe man-made causes like as greenhouse gas emissions are playing a major part in warming the globe, how much climate change is to blame for heavier and more frequent downpours is a point of contention.
Flooding has been a frequent occurrence in parts of Germany, including areas impacted by this week’s catastrophe, for millennia, most recently in 2016, 2013, and 2002. St. Mary Magdalene’s flood of 1342 was the worst documented flood in western Germany, and it was so violent that it permanently changed the terrain in certain areas.
After severe floods in Schuld on July 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel examined the damage.
EPA/Shutterstock photo by Sascha Steinbach
According to the German Meteorological Service, which is currently examining whether the recent flood may be related to climate change with the assistance of foreign specialists, there is no obvious pattern indicating such occurrences are growing more common. Their report is expected out in August, and a spokesperson for the government agency said they had yet to discover a connection.
It’s uncertain if climate change is causing more frequent floods, according to Doug Smith, who leads decadal climate forecast research and development at the Met Office Hadley Centre in the United Kingdom, and it’s impossible to connect an individual occurrence to the worldwide trend.
“The flood in Germany is an illustration of what may happen in times of extreme instability, and similar occurrences are likely to become more common,” he added. According to some scientists, the jet stream—high-altitude winds that sweep eastward over the Atlantic—has slowed as a result of climate change, allowing storms in Europe to stay stationary for extended periods of time, perhaps resulting in greater floods. Mr. Smith, on the other hand, said that there was no concrete proof of this occurring.
One of the causes of last week’s heavy rains, according to meteorologists, was a blocking pattern over Europe, which left the storm hanging over the afflicted areas for days.
The amount of devastation in German communities affected by the region’s worst floods in decades can be seen in before-and-after photos. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged for greater effort to prevent future climate-related catastrophes while visiting one of the flooded villages. Maxar Technologies/Satellite Image 2021 Maxar Technologies/Satellite Image 2021 Maxar Technologies/Satel
According to Christian Pfister of the Oeschger Centre for Climate Research in Switzerland, historical records show that temperatures are rising, but it’s uncertain if flooding occurrences are getting more often.
“While it is certain that global temperatures are rising—the historic increase is well-documented and beyond debate—there is no evidence that rainfall, or floods, is becoming more common as a consequence of climate change, at least not yet,” Prof. Pfister said.
Heat waves are more easier to trace to climate change than floods, according to Bjrn Hallvard Samset of the Cicero Center for International Climate Research in Norway, but most scientists anticipate severe temperatures and heavy precipitation to go hand-in-hand as the climate changes.
“When you have severe rain conditions, there will be more rain,” he added.
Many of these experts agree that, although floods of the magnitude of last week’s are becoming more common, they have occurred frequently enough in the past for stronger mitigating measures to be implemented quickly.
The floods at Bad Münstereifel, Germany, completely destroyed the city center.
Bernd März/action press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Zuma Press/Z
Even in countries with cooler climates, such as Germany, governments must now assume that temperatures will rise to the point where the elderly will need to be sheltered in air-conditioned rooms, and that infrastructure such as sewage and dams will need to be strengthened to withstand flooding, according to Jörg Kachelmann, a German meteorologist who accurately predicted last week’s flood several days ahead of time.
Many of the hardest-hit communities were unprepared for the disaster: housing and other infrastructure were at risk of catastrophic flooding, and warning systems such as sirens were missing when the flash floods struck.
The Ahr and Rhine rivers have flooded the region for over a millennium in the county of Ahrweiler, which experienced the greatest number of flood casualties. The last time a catastrophic flood of the magnitude of last week occurred there was in 1910.
Last week, more than 120 people perished in the region, accounting for a significant part of the overall death toll, when torrential rains swept through the medieval villages, causing some old wooden-frame homes to collapse.
According to Rüdiger Glaser, professor of physical geography at the University of Freiburg, the storm dumped more than liters per square meter in certain German areas, making it the wettest year since 1881, when official measurements for Germany as a whole began.
If climate change makes severe weather events more probable, this should motivate government to strengthen defenses against such catastrophes, not discourage them, according to Kaveh Madani, a Yale University climate expert.
In certain instances, this may entail difficult choices such as community relocation to higher ground.
“Climate change mitigation is like chemotherapy; it’s unpleasant and expensive: telling people to move or alter their behaviors won’t be easy,” he added.
Bojan Pancevski can be reached at [email protected].
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