A German twon flooded and in ruins

The Role of Climate Change in Western Europe Fatal Floodings

In the past week, many Western European nations have been facing torrential rainfall, resulting in fatal flooding throughout the region. Hundreds of people have died, thousands or more are missing and buildings and homes are in ruins as the rivers spill and flow through several towns and villages. What caused such a catastrophe in such a developed part of the world? Could climate change have anything to do with this extreme weather event? Keep reading to find out.


Overview of the Floods in Europe

Excessive rainfall between Monday, 12th July and Thursday, 15th July has inundated parts of Austria,  Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg,  the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The worst-hit out of these countries has to be Germany and Belgium.

Together, these places experienced an average of 100-150 millimetres of rainfall in a span of 24 hours. In some places, this exceeded even 207 millimetres in less than 10 hours. Usually, this is the amount of rainfall that the region sees over two months. That being said, such rainfall hasn’t been witnessed in this part of Europe for nearly a century.

Map of western europe marking the flooded areas in red
Map indicating the flooded areas in red. Image Credit: BBC

As of 19th July 2021, 188 people in total have died and around 1,300 people are missing. These numbers are still expected to rise as the final numbers are presented with the situation subduing.

15,000 police officials and emergency service workers have been engaged in rescuing and searching for those who’ve been affected and those missing. In solidarity, aid from other European nations such as France, Italy and Austria have been deployed to help with the rescue missions.

Numerous villages, towns and cities in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland are in ruins. Many places in the region of Wallonia in Belgium, which borders the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, are equally devastated.

As the Rhine River and some of its tributaries overflowed after continuous rainfall, houses were destroyed, roads, bridges and other public infrastructure were broken, cars and debris were floating around. There was even a massive landslide that formed a pit in Erftstadt, a town close to Cologne.

The swelling and spilling of the Meuse River affected many parts of Belgium, such as Liege and Verviers similarly, resulting in over 30 casualties.

Across these countries, dams and dykes burst; rivers and sewer systems overflowed, and rivers and lakes saw higher levels of water after many decades.

Currently, floodwaters are subduing, revealing more and more of the damage. Many remain on high alert as the event is still not over. Sources predict heavy rainfall again this week.


Impact of the Floods on the Nations and their Residents

The floods have not only affected individuals but nations as a whole.

At the individual level, many people have lost their homes and property. Some temporarily, while some, forever.

With the rapid rise in the water levels, residents had to quickly evacuate their homes before it was too late. Waist-high waters did not make it easy to exit. The doors were out of reach, so many had to leave through their windows. Those who couldn’t find a way out tried to find an elevated part of their building or house to take shelter in. But, in the state of emergency and chaos, some were not so fortunate to save themselves.

In addition, a sudden event like this disrupts daily life and in many cases results in a loss of livelihood. Plus, dealing with the trauma and stress of losing a home or a loved one or both, out of the blue, may mentally disturb the victims. A state that is difficult to recover from.

On a communal level, the floods caused limited communication, they’ve affected the power plants, restricting power supply and even limited the supply of clean water.

Floods have also destroyed the surroundings. For example, in Erfstadt, a town near Cologne, Germany, the forceful currents of water caused a landslide in a quarry. The ground could no longer hold the weight of the water, resulting in the collapse of land.

landslide and flooding in western germany
An aerial view of the flood induced landslide at Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, Image Credit: Reuters

Additionally, floods also pose a health risk to people as the water coursing through the towns may carry waterborne diseases. Though there haven’t yet been any reports of such cases in the recent floods, it is a common consequence of floods.

Finally, the destruction of public infrastructure such as roads, bridges and buildings, among others, affects everyone, the nation as a whole. For example, currently, the ruination of rail networks, roads and bridges has made transportation of things like supplies and aid difficult.

Shipping activities have also been partially suspended on the River Rhine, for example, because the increased water levels mean that shipping vessels have limited space to pass under bridges. This affects the trade of important commodities such as coal, oil, animal feed and minerals.

Another economic consequence of the floods is that there are suddenly added expenditures. Repairing the damaged infrastructure and homes will cost billions of euros. The repair costs of the floods in 2013, in Germany, amounted to nearly 6.7 billion euros. The amount required this time is expected to be equally costly, if not more.

Furthermore, rebuilding and repairing the damage could take months and even years. Meaning it will be long before the victims of this extreme weather event can recover their losses.


What Caused the Floods?

The simple answer to that question would be that heavy rainfall resulted in the waters of the rivers overflowing. Heavy rainfall can be experienced anywhere from time to time, but there is a reason why it was so destructive this time. The reason is – climate change.

The rise in temperatures due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is resulting in global climate change. So far, 1.2oC since the beginning of the industrial revolution and greenhouse gas emissions have doubled. The temperatures will keep rising and with it, extreme weather events will become far more frequent and intense if these emissions aren’t minimized.


Although scientists haven’t yet been able to link the calamity to climate change, the signs are too obvious to overlook.   In the past, most extreme weather events, like heatwaves, tropical cyclones, droughts, etc. have been linked to climate change, so, it is likely that this event was also a result of climate change. Here are two ways that prove that excess rainfall and flooding were indeed caused by climate change:

  1. Increase in the Evaporation of Water

The increase in global temperatures also increases the evaporation of water from the Earth’s surface and waters.

The rise in temperatures also means a warmer atmosphere, which further means that there is more capacity to hold the water vapours. The increase in moisture and weight in the atmosphere forms low-pressure weather systems resulting in rainfall.

In a low-pressure system, the winds blow towards the centre, which results in the air rising. This air also contains water vapours. Once it reaches the atmosphere, the air cools, condensing the vapours forming clouds and rain. The more moisture that the atmosphere holds, the more intense will the downpours be.

Such intense rainfall can lead to flooding as the water keeps rolling downhill instead of taking time to be absorbed into the soil. Even if it is absorbed into the ground, the volume of the water quickly saturates it, causing the water to keep flowing. Or, gather in rivers, lakes and sewage systems until they can no longer contain and spill.

It is interesting to note that for every 1 degree Celsius that the planet’s temperature rises, 7% more water vapour can be retained by the atmosphere.


  1. The Heating of the Poles

The temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctica, or the poles, rise faster compared to other places on the globe.

This disturbs the strength of jet streams, which are air currents that move eastward at higher altitudes. When the temperatures between the poles and the equator have a bigger difference, the jet streams are stronger and evenly distributed. This is because jet streams are formed in places where there is a drastic difference in temperatures in the atmosphere.

However, when there isn’t much difference between the temperature at the poles and the equator, like in the case of the poles melting, the jet streams are weaker, especially in mid-latitudes. These weak jet streams cause areas of high and low pressure, resulting in weather that lasts for prolonged periods. For example, in summer when the arctic warms up, it results in slower but long-lasting and more intense storms.

Slow-moving low-pressure systems cause heavy rainfall, which is what some sources believe caused the floods in western Germany and the United Kingdom last week.

The Germans named this low-pressure weather system ‘Bernd’. The cold Bernd happened to be surrounded by high-pressure systems. And when the air from a high-pressure system flows into the Bernd, it results in an abnormal amount of intense rainfall for a longer period of time.


Reason Behind the Higher Death Count

This part of Europe has faced floods before, but the reason that the death count was much higher this time is that the number of houses that were destroyed was also higher. The intensity of the rain and flow of water was so powerful that it hit the houses with great speed, without even giving people time to get out of their houses. Plus, many of the floods occurred at night, further explaining the limited time people had to evacuate.

The highest death count was in Germany, and the places that were most affected by the flood were villages lined with old houses. Many of which were constructed with a wooden framework, a type of structure that isn’t well suited to withstand such extremities.

houses wrecked due to the floods in germany
A destroyed house is pictured after floods caused major damage in Schuld near Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, western Germany. Image Credit: Christof Stache via Aljazeera

At this point, you may be asking yourself, ‘weren’t the people warned about the possibility of floods earlier?’

The answer is yes. The German weather service and hydrological services in Germany issued warnings on Monday,  three days before the flooding. However, the news was communicated in such a way that many did not quite understand the gravity of the situation. This resulted in the lack of preparation made before the flooding on Wednesday.

And hence, the loss of many lives as well.


Climate scientists in the past had already foreseen the effects that human-made greenhouse gas emissions would have on the climate but, their occurrences, in reality, seem to exceed expectations in the most terrifying way possible.

Even if nations and experts wished to deny the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, it would be difficult to do so now, as their occurrences are far more frequent. Hence, there is more data available now to prove this link.


Climate Change does not Discriminate

Who would have imagined that developed countries like Germany and Belgium would face such devastating and deadly floods? This event should serve as a reminder to all nations that the climate crisis is indeed an emergency.

What is more ironic is that the floods happened on the same week that the European Union announced their plan to reduce 55% of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Their plan also includes imposing taxes on jet fuels and banning the sales of petrol and diesel cars within the next 20 years. These are, however, mere proposals and could be years before being implemented.

It’s like nature is trying to show these countries exactly why it is necessary to implement these plans.

Climate scientists and activists are constantly pleading with everyone to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from engine exhaust, forest fires, industrial activities and the use of fossil fuel, for example.

If not, we should be prepared for more devastating events like floods, heatwaves, cyclones and droughts, to name a few extreme weather events.

These are all indicators of climate change. After all, how much more proof does the world need before realizing that the issue is real and that it will come to everyone? It will not discriminate between the rich and poor, developed or developing countries.

cars immersed in floodwater
Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the floodwater following heavy rainfall in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany. Image Credit: Thilo Schmuelgen via Aljazeera

To recap, we first understood what was happening in many of the Western European countries at present. We saw that Germany and Belgium particularly experienced floods which declared numerous people missing, dead or homeless. We then looked at the overall impact that the floods have had or may have, on the economy, community and, of course, the individual. Lastly, we thoroughly examined how the increase in the evaporation of water and the melting of the polar caps, both consequences of climate change, could have caused these floods.


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