‘Clear link’: Europe floods show urgent need to curb climate change, experts say

Click to play video: 'Death toll from Europe’s catastrophic floods expected to climb' Death toll from Europe’s catastrophic floods expected to climb
WATCH: Death toll from Europe's catastrophic floods expected to climb – Jul 16, 2021

Just as the European Union was announcing plans to spend billions of euros to contain climate change, massive clouds gathered over Germany and nearby nations to unleash an unprecedented storm that left death and destruction in its wake.

Despite ample warnings, politicians and weather forecasters were shocked at the ferocity of the precipitation that caused flash flooding that claimed more than 150 lives this week in the lush rolling hills of Western Europe.

Climate scientists say the link between extreme weather and global warming is unmistakable and the urgency to do something about climate change undeniable.

Read more: ‘We were lucky, we survived,’: Germans describe flooding hitting western Europe

Scientists can’t yet say for sure whether climate change caused the flooding, but they insist that it certainly exacerbates the extreme weather that has been on show from the western U.S. and Canada to Siberia to Europe’s Rhine region.

Story continues below advertisement

“There is a clear link between extreme precipitation occurring and climate change,” Wim Thiery, a professor at Brussels University, said Friday.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Potsdam, referring to the recent heat records set in the U.S. and Canada, said “some are so extreme that they would be virtually impossible without global warming..”

Taking them all together, said Sir David King, chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, “these are casualties of the climate crisis: we will only see these extreme weather events become more frequent.”

Click to play video: 'Western Europe hit by heavy rains and flooding' Western Europe hit by heavy rains and flooding
Western Europe hit by heavy rains and flooding – Jul 15, 2021

For Diederik Samsom, the European Commission’s Cabinet chief behind this week’s massive proposals to spend billions and force industry into drastic reforms to help cut the bloc’s emissions of the gases that cause global warming by 55 per cent this decade, this week’s disaster was a cautionary tale.

Story continues below advertisement

“People are washed away in Germany … and Belgium and the Netherlands, too. We are experiencing climate change,” he said on a conference call of the European Policy Centre think tank. “A few years ago, you had to point to a point in the future or far away on the planet to talk about climate change. It’s happening now — here.”

And climate scientists point toward two specific things that have contributed to this week’s calamity.

First, with every 1 C rise in temperature, the air can take in 7 per cent more humidity. It can hold the water longer, leading to drought, but it also leads to an increase in dense, massive rainfall once it releases it.

Read more: Europe floods: Death toll climbs to 125 as search for survivors continues

Another defining factor is the tendency for storms to hover over one place for far longer than usual, thus dumping increasing amounts of rain on a smaller patch of the world. Scientists say warming is a contributing factor there, too. A jet stream of high winds nearly 10 kilometres high helps determine the weather over Europe and is fed by temperature differences between the tropics and the Arctic.

Yet as Europe warms — with Scandinavia currently experiencing an unusual heat wave — the jet stream is weakened, causing its meandering course to stop, sometimes for days, Thiery said.

Story continues below advertisement

He said such a phenomenon was visible in Canada too, where it helped cause a “heat dome” in which temperatures rose to 50 C.

“And it is causing the heavy rain that we have seen in Western Europe,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Hundreds still missing after record rainfall, flooding in western Europe' Hundreds still missing after record rainfall, flooding in western Europe
Hundreds still missing after record rainfall, flooding in western Europe – Jul 16, 2021

Even if greenhouse gas emissions are drastically curbed in the coming decades, the amount of carbon dioxide and other planet-heating gases already in the atmosphere means extreme weather is going to become more likely.

Experts say such phenomena will hit those areas that aren’t prepared for it particularly hard.

“We need to make our built environment — buildings, outdoor spaces, cities — more resilient to climate change,” said Lamia Messari-Becker, a professor of engineering at the University of Siegen.

Those that don’t adapt will risk greater loss of life and damage to property, said Ernst Rauch, chief climate and geoscientist at the reinsurance giant Munich Re.

Story continues below advertisement

“The events of today and yesterday or so give us a hint that we need to do better with respect to being ready for these these type of events,” he said. “The events themselves are not really unexpected, but the order of magnitude probably has surprised some.”


Frank Jordans in Berlin, and David Keyton in Paris, contributed to this report.

Sponsored content