As German leaders reacted to some of western Europe’s worst flooding in a century, there were notable similarities in their messages – these events are shocking, but given the state of the climate crisis, perhaps unsurprising.
“We’ve experienced droughts, heavy rain and flooding events several years in a row, including in our state,” said Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state, one of the worst affected areas. “Climate change isn’t abstract anymore. We are experiencing it up close and painfully.”
Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia who is widely expected to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor later this year, echoed this view.
“We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures, on European, federal and global levels, because climate change isn’t confined to one state,” he said.
Despite repeated warnings from climate scientists that rising temperatures and carbon emissions are leading to more intense and frequent extreme weather events, experts have told The Independent the intensity and scale of the floods across western Germany were unexpected.
“The intensity of rainfall was extraordinary over a rather large area – in many places including the city of Cologne, all-time records of daily rainfall have been exceeded by far,” said Professor Dieter Gerten from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Historic water level records for many small streams were also broken, partly due to the fact that the soil was water-clogged from previous rainfall, he added.
Scientists warn that Europe will experience more extreme weather events, such as this week’s floods, due to climate change.
“The floods occurring in Europe right now are unfortunately entirely consistent with the body of science, and events like this will become more commonplace,” Shaun Harrigan, a scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, told The Independent.
According to Harrigan, there is a clear trend of increased precipitation in northern Europe over the past 50 years while in southern Europe, decreasing precipitation and increasing evaporation has led to a reduction in river floods.
Higher temperatures will lead to more intense and frequent heavy precipitation over the next decades, according to Friederike Otto, associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “The higher global warming, the more rainfall.”
When the atmosphere is warmer, it holds more water vapour. This leads to heavier rain while changes in atmospheric composition and rising temperatures also alter the pressure of weather systems which can result in more rain, she added.
Research shows that climate change is slowing down storm events, Harrigan said. A study published last month concluded that slow-moving storms may become 14 times more frequent by the end of the century due to climate change.
“Large slow-moving storm events, that can ‘stagnate’ over an area, have more time to dump water over land,” said Harrigan. “These atmospheric conditions therefore provide the recipe for more intense and spatially extensive flooding in future.”