Flooding Germany .Flooded road passing through the railway. A road under water.

Flooding in Western Europe: the impact of the climate crisis

In News by Stephanie Brain

Flooding in Western Europe:
the impact of the climate crisis

This article is part of a series by guest bloggers, each giving a different perspective to the causes and implications of the severe flooding in Western Europe earlier this year.

Earlier this year Western Europe saw record levels of rainfall and consequential flooding, leading to catastrophic impacts on communities and towns. Districts in Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium were all impacted, with Germany being the worst affected. This follows an increasing pattern of severe weather events as the impacts of global warming begin to tangibly emerge, signifying that Western Europe is not immune to the climate crisis.

What caused the floods in Western Europe?

In July, significant levels of rainfall that exceeded all previous records caused severe flooding in Germany and Luxembourg, as well as flooding in the Netherlands and Belgium. Some parts of Germany – predominantly the Western regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia – saw as much as two months’ worth of rain within just 24 – 48 hours. The flooding was caused by a storm complex which moved east from France into Germany and stalled over the region resulting in very heavy rainfall over a period of 1-2 days. This was following wet conditions prior to the event which meant that soils were already close to saturation point.

Not only did this cause rivers to flood onto their banks, but this also led to evacuation orders in multiple cities as dams filled past their capacity and flooded slopes were transformed into wide rivers, transporting water a hundred times faster than usual. In addition, this caused flash flooding in community areas resulting in numerous casualties and over 200 fatalities.

Has climate change impacted the level of rainfall?

Whilst flooding in Europe has been a persistent risk for decades, this level of rainfall was unprecedented, and it is widely accepted that climate change has impacted the intensity of rainfall. This reinforces the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which affirms that there is “unequivocal evidence humans are warming the planet leading to extreme weather changes”.

Scientists state that similar extreme rainfall events are now 20% more likely to occur in Western Europe due to climate change. In addition, climate change has caused a 19% increase in the intensity of rainfall in the Western Europe region than if global temperatures had not risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius. Since there is a substantial risk that global warming will not be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees Celsius, it is probable that extreme rainfall and flooding will become even more frequent and intense than currently predicted.

What impacts have the floods had on Germany?

Despite warnings several days before the extreme rainfall hit Germany, the level of rainfall and fast-rising waters took many by surprise. The responsibility for organising protection and implementing preventative measures such as warning citizens about the potential dangers is delegated to localities. However, evacuation warnings failed to get through to enough people which resulted in a tragic number of missing people and deaths.

Entire towns, infrastructure and homes were swept away during the floods, leaving many homeless and with limited access to power. The Ahr Valley has been destroyed and almost all infrastructure has been impacted, directly affecting at least 40,000 people – a third of the town’s population. The destruction has been widespread and only 35 of the 112 bridges in the flood zone remain intact.

The displacement from homes is likely to have long-term health impacts on citizens from injuries, the psychosocial impact and disruption to access to healthcare. These risks are exacerbated further by the damage to hospitals and health facilities, as well as the slow recovery of the areas affected as they rebuild entire towns.

Rebuilding towns will also come at a significant financial cost to both government and citizens. The German government has agreed a €30 billion reconstruction fund to rebuild the towns and villages impacted to facilitate the recovery. Despite this, the reconstruction will take years to complete as inhabitable homes will need to be demolished whilst water and power lines, roads and buildings will need to be entirely rebuilt. It is also unclear whether the reconstruction fund will be sufficient as the financial damage in Rhineland-Palatinate alone has been estimated to be €18 billion.

How can Western Europe prepare for future flooding?

Evidently, Western Europe is not immune from the climate crisis and steps must be taken to allay any future consequences. Extreme weather events are only likely to increase in frequency and intensity in the future. The catastrophic impacts on communities in Germany and across Western Europe demonstrate the importance of an early warning and alert system to mitigate the risks as far as possible, protecting people, businesses, and investments.

A fundamental component of an early warning system is the use of flood maps and data to identify flood risk, which can be as detailed as to an individual property level. Ambiental’s European FloodMap includes map layers predicting flood depth and the extent across Western Europe. FloodScore also pins flood risk data to all addressable properties and includes risk index scores which are ideal for ranking risks and deriving insurance premiums.

Ambiental’s European flood risk solutions enable customers to plan for future flooding by mitigating the impacts through an accurate and comprehensive overview of flood risk. This supports the implementation of an early warning system to protect communities, infrastructure, and investments. Understanding which areas are vulnerable to flooding and the extent of the risk is critical to prevent a repetition of the catastrophic Western Europe floods seen earlier this year.

Extreme weather events are ultimately increasing in frequency and severity across Western Europe as climate change impacts the level of rainfall. Despite this, Ambiental can help to minimise the catastrophic impacts of future severe flooding by providing accurate predictive data on both a detailed and widespread level, tailored to customers’ needs.

Find out more about our climate suite data products for Europe here.

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