This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
After two months’ worth of rain fell in just two days through July 14 and 15, causing severe flooding in much of Western Europe and leaving nearly 200 people dead, political leaders are attributing the deluge to the climate emergency.
“Climate change has arrived in Germany,” tweeted German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze. “The events show the force with which the consequences of climate change can affect us all and how important it is to prepare even better for such extreme weather events in the future.”
At least 188 people are dead in Germany and Belgium, Reuters reports, and thousands have had to evacuate their homes in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and England, The Independent writes. Internet and phone connections are down in many areas, complicating rescue operations and making it difficult to accurately track missing and recovered residents. Some people are still missing or unreachable where the most severe flooding occurred in Germany and Belgium, but the high numbers of missing people initially reported appear to have been a result of confusion and multiple reporting, the CBC states. Experts expect the death toll to rise as emergency response efforts continue.
Some areas received 182 millimetres of rain over 72 hours, BBC reports.
The downpour caused water levels to rise until lakes and streams burst their banks. Reservoirs and sewer systems filled while floodwaters swept away cars and collapsed buildings. The Washington Post has an interactive map showing before and after pictures of the mudslides, collapsed buildings and dikes, and destroyed homes in the devastated areas. The South China Morning Post says access to hospitals was disrupted as roads became impassable and rescue crews relied on boats to reach residents. Farms that had been struggling under drought conditions only weeks before are now flooded with standing water, reports The Guardian.
“A lot of people have lost everything they spent their lives building up—their possessions, their home, the roof over their heads,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
While formal attribution studies take some time after severe weather, officials with the German Meteorological Service are blaming climate change for the intense rainfall and warning these events will become more frequent, Forbes reports. Other climate scientists agree that the frequency of extreme flooding and other weather events will increase with rising global temperature shifts, but some are hesitant to confirm a definitive link to these specific floods without clearer evidence. While “one can state that such events are becoming more frequent due to global warming,” Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of ocean physics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told the Associated Press, it is unclear whether this specific instance of extreme rainfall in Western Europe is a direct result.
CBC explains the basic dynamic: rising global temperatures create a warmer atmosphere that can hold more moisture before precipitating, allowing for a greater amount of rain to fall in a single event. Meanwhile, weakening circulation in the atmosphere results in a greater number of slow-moving storms that increase an area’s exposure.
So long-lingering storms, combined with higher volumes of rain, will continue to produce weather events like the floods in Western Europe. A recent study from the UK predicts slow-moving storms in Europe might occur 14 times more frequently by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t brought under control.
In Western Europe over the last few days, those effects were made worse by human choices and decisions, the BBC and The Independent explain. Extensive areas of land with “sealed soils”—meaning land paved or covered over for housing and roads—prevented rainfall from soaking into the soil rather than accumulating on the surface. As well, rivers like the Erft have been modified by industrial and residential development and now flow more like straightened canals than free-flowing rivers. This magnifies flood damage as the water current runs faster and natural floodplains that can better handle overflow are removed.
After dealing with the urgent priority of saving human lives and preventing further damage, Schulze said, the country will need adapt its policies by rethinking settlement policies along rivers and finding ways to better adapt to flooding and droughts.
The floods are expected to make climate change a central issue in the German federal election coming up in two months. An analysis from Tellereport suggests the Green Party, which has been trailing the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), may now see an increase in voter support, as the floods bring renewed national focus to the environmental issues that the define the party.
Greens leader Annalena Baerbock has interrupted her holiday to travel to areas affected by the flood. In an interview earlier this month, she said her party would “not enter into a government that doesn’t do everything in its power to get on a path compatible with the 1.5° goal.”
CDU leader Armin Laschet, who is running to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “said the unusually heavy storms and an earlier heat wave could be linked to climate change,” The Independent writes. However, the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports Laschet, who has been facing criticism from environmentalists for his stance on the country’s coal phaseout, declaring that he would not change environmental policy because of one disaster.
Tied to the issue of political performance, some critics are questioning German authorities’ response to the crisis. Hydrologist Hannah Cloke, who set up and advises the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS), described the death toll as “a monumental failure of the system.” An extreme weather warning was issued through EFAS earlier in the week, indicating that there was danger to life and leaving the decision to evacuate up to local authorities. But Cloke decried the failure to effectively communicate the flood danger, pointing to the number of residents who received the warning too late or not at all.
German officials said the system worked as it was supposed to, but that it was never designed for such an unprecedented amount of rain. The warning system relies on a network of sensors to measure river levels in real time, but doesn’t account for the many small streams and rivers that contributed to the floods.
“The warnings arrived, but the question is, why didn’t evacuations take place sooner?” asked German Weather Service spokesperson Uwe Kirsche.
The floods occurred while natural disasters elsewhere demonstrate the destructive effects of a changing climate. The recent wildfires in Russia and on the North American West Coast, the droughts in the American West and Canadian prairie provinces, and the heat waves in North America, Northern Europe, and India are all linked to human-induced climate change. While the scientific community may not be ready to directly attribute this one flooding event with climate change, many see it as an example of the new weather patterns associated with a warming climate.
“Whilst rapid attribution studies have shown the clear link between human-induced climate change and the unprecedented heat wave episodes recorded in the Western United States and Canada, weather patterns over the whole northern hemisphere have shown an unusual planetary wavy pattern this summer,” said Dr. Omar Baddour, head of the World Meteorological Organization’s Climate Monitoring and Policy Division. “This has brought unprecedented heat, droughts, cold, and wet conditions in various places. The connection of this large-scale disturbance of the summer season with the warming of the Arctic and the heat accumulation in the ocean needs to be investigated.”