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WEATHER

Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

Climate change made the deadly floods that devastated parts of Germany and Belgium last month up to nine times more likely, according to an international study published Tuesday.

Climate change made German floods 'more likely and more intense'
The devastation caused by the flooding in Ahrbrück, western Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

At least 190 people lost their lives in severe floods that pummelled western Germany in mid-July, and at least 38 people perished after extreme rainfall in Belgium’s southern Wallonia region.

Using the growing speciality of attribution science, climate experts are increasingly able to link manmade climate change to specific extreme weather events.

To calculate the role of climate change on the rainfall that led to the floods, scientists analysed weather records and computer simulations to compare the climate today – which is around 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer due to manmade emissions – with the climate of the past.

They focused on one- and two-day rainfall levels, and found that two particularly hard hit areas saw unprecedented precipitation last month.

In the Ahr and Erft regions of Germany, 93 millimetres (3.6 inches) of rain fell in a single day at the height of the crisis. The Belgium region of Meuse saw a record-breaking 106 mm of rain over a two-day period.

READ ALSO: ‘We’re full’: German waste centres tackle mountain of post-flood debris

They calculated that the floods were between 1.2 and nine times more likely to happen in today’s warmed climate, compared to a scenario where no heating
had occurred since the pre-industrial era.

Such downpours over Germany and the Benelux region are now between 3-19 percent heavier because of human-induced warming, according to the study, organised by World Weather Attribution.

“Climate change increased the likelihood (of the floods), but climate change also increased the intensity,” said Frank Kreienkamp, from the German Weather Service (DWD).

Friederike Otto, associate director of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said that the floods showed that “even developed countries are not safe from severe impacts of extreme weather that we have seen and known to get worse with climate change”.

“This is an urgent global challenge and we need to step up to it. The science is clear and has been for years.”

READ ALSO: Climate change – Germany says ‘time is running out’ to save the planet

‘Wake-up call’

By analysing local rainfall patterns across Western Europe, the authors of Tuesday’s study were able to estimate the likelihood of an event similar to last month’s floods occurring again.

They found that similar events could be expected to hit any given area about once in 400 years at current warming levels.

This means several events on the scale of the German and Belgian floods are likely across Western Europe within that timeframe, they said.

“It was a very rare event,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

“On the other hand it has already become more likely than before and it will become more likely in the future.”

The scientists said that they focused on rainfall in this study as river level data was missing after several measurement stations were washed away in the floods.

Van Aalst said the study should be a “wake-up call for people”.

“The increase in risk that we found in this study is something we need to manage about flood risk management, about preparedness, about early warning systems,” he told journalists.

“Sadly, people tend to be prepared for the last disaster.”

READ ALSO: Germany knew its warning system wasn’t good enough. Why wasn’t it improved?

By Patrick GALEY

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WEATHER

Western Germany hit by second round of severe storms

Parts of Germany were once again pummelled by heavy thunderstorms on Monday - just days after the city of Paderborn was struck by a devastating tornado.

Western Germany hit by second round of severe storms

A severe weather warning was issued on Sunday by the German Weather Service (DWD), who cautioned residents in western and southwestern regions of the country that fierce gusts of wind, hailstones and heavy rain could once again be on the horizon.

A  second tornado could “not be ruled out” in the southwestern regions of the country, DWD warned. 

North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, were struck by heavy rain and hailstorms and strong gusts of wind throughout the afternoon.

However, the worst of the thunder and hailstorms warnings were for the state of Baden-Württemberg. 

Here, DWD issued a Stage 3 weather warning – the second highest possible. Severe thunderstorms with gale-force winds at speeds of up to 110km per hour were forecast, with up to 50 litres of rain per square metre falling in a short space of time.

According to the meteorologists, the storms are expected sweep across to the eastern regions of the country and ease off in the evening.

The storms and severe weather warnings came days after the city of Paderborn in North Rhine-Westphalia was hit by a devastating tornado.

According to the local fire brigade, 43 people were injured in the storm, with 13 of them needing to be hospitalised and one person reportedly fighting for their life. 

Railway services were cancelled across many parts of the west over the weekend, but resumed again on Monday.

Air travel in some parts of the country was also affected, with Frankfurt Airport in the central state of Hesse saying there was disruption to flights on Friday. 

Videos posted on social media depicted the strongest part of the tornado tearing through the city, ripping trees up by their roots.

The damage to infrastructure and buildings caused by the storm is estimated to be in the millions.

Schools remain closed

As of Monday, several schools and nurseries remained closed in both Paderborn and nearby Lippstadt due to fears that the buildings couldn’t be safely entered.

In the small town of Lippstadt alone, five nurseries and seven schools were closed for repairs on Monday, with administrators unable to say when they would reopen their doors.

“Given the extent of the damage we see at the various locations, it is currently unthinkable that classes can be held there in the next few days,” said Mayor Arne Moritz (CDU).

In Paderborn, meanwhile, drones were exploring five closed school buildings to check whether there was a risk of damaged roofs imploding. The streets where the schools are located have been closed off to the public and the police are believed to be patrolling outside to stop anyone entering.

READ ALSO: Tornado in western Germany injures dozens

Damaged roof in Paderborn

A damaged roof in the aftermath of the Paderborn storms. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

More frequent tornadoes? 

Tornadoes aren’t infrequent in Central Europe, but recently appear to be gaining in frequency and intensity, which experts suggest could be a result of climate change. 

In June 2021, a deadly tornado swept through several villages in the Czech Republic near the Slovakian and Austrian borders, killing six people and injuring a further 200. 

At time, climatologists pointed out that until 2020, the Czech Republic only saw a handful of tornadoes each year – and most of them were relatively mild.

Speaking to WDR on Sunday, climate researcher Dr. Mojib Latif drew a direct parallel between warmer temperatures and more violent and regular storms.  

“In Germany there are approximately between 20 and 40 tornadoes per year,” he told the regional media outlet. “We have to reckon with that. As the climate gets warmer and thunderstorms become more violent, the frequency of tornadoes will also increase.”

However, some experts have been more cautious about drawing a direct link.

“That simply cannot be determined at the moment,” meteorologist Jürgen Schmidt told RND. 

Schmidt thinks the perception that tornadoes have increased in recent years could have a slightly more prosaic explanation.

The fact that people are able to record them on their smartphones and share these images more widely could contribute to this impression, he said. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

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