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Are Deadly Storms the Climate’s New Normal?

Floods have submerged parts of France, Spain, and Italy, leaving some dead, others missing, and a trail of incalculable damage in their wake

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Last week’s storms pounded Southern Europe and caused massive flooding throughout Spain, Italy, and France. Cars were swept away, cities were inundated under centimetres of water, and rivers burst their banks. Millions of euros in damages were incurred on roadways, railways, and property, with resulting power cuts affecting more than 20,000 people in Spain alone.

The aftermath has left five missing in Spain, with one man’s body found on a beach in the Catalonia region late last Wednesday. Two people were found deceased in northern Italy, with three more dead in France. Many still remain unaccounted for.

Dramatic rescues saw 1,000 people evacuated from France’s Montpellier region, with 500 brought in from a campsite, and in one case, 38 airlifted by helicopter to safety. Over 1,800 rescue operations have been carried out across the country, and around 700 homes remain without power.

“This toll could have been higher”, French Ecology Minister Elisabeth Borne said while inspecting the damage in Beziers, which was hit particularly hard. “I’ve never seen water rise that fast. I’ve lived here for twenty years and this is the first time”, Jean-Louis, a retiree in Servian, told Reuters.

Many parts of northwest Italy, including Genoa and Milan, were soaked by heavy rainfall. Italy’s Civil Protection Department placed the central zone of the coastal Liguria region on a maximum red alert due to the potential of dangerous flash floods. This autumn is likely to be one of the wettest on record for the entire region. Italy has already received 18 percent more precipitation than it did in the same period last year, and this is only the second instance of heavy rains this season.

In September, similar flooding led to the deaths of seven people in Spain. As of now, more than 50 roads remained closed and 37 flights were diverted, mostly out of Palma de Mallorca.

This Will Only Get Worse

Extreme storms like the ones that hit Southern Europe last week were once rare events, but now occur multiple times in a season. As more rain falls in some parts of the world and other regions receive less than before, weather everywhere has become more extreme. But it’s not just the severity of autumn rains that is increasing – heat waves are intensifying too. This past summer was the hottest on record, and at least two people died in Spain as a result. These global shifts are all a response to climate change.

In Europe, both flood patterns and amount of rainfall are shifting rapidly. “Flood risks are already changing, and have already changed, due to climate change. Municipalities have to find their own way to become more resilient to the increased risks they face”, says Sven Willner, who studies this natural disaster phenomenon at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Reports show that runaway emissions are causing oceans to warm and ice caps to melt at rapid speeds – since 1993, the rate of warming has doubled. Monster floods like the ones seen this month are a direct result of warmer and more elevated sea levels, according the IPCC ocean report released earlier this year. This means that unless global efforts are made to drastically reduce emissions, volatile weather can only be expected to worsen.

Data has shown, however, that even if said emissions were significantly slashed, mild weather as we know it will not make a comeback. Best-case scenarios reveal that the flooding which occurred once a century will, by 2050, become an annual event. 10 percent of the world’s population resides less than 10 metres above sea level, already putting the lives of over 600 million people at risk.

Under high emissions, worst case scenarios reflect dire circumstances as the effect of global climate change will be felt inland too. As those residing in coastal cities flee their homes, the impact of millions of displaced climate refugees could lead to political upheaval. Water scarcity and low-yield harvests may also cause food shortages and drive political instability as a result.

A new tool produced by Dr Davide Natalini and Professor Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin University, called a “Chaos Map”, so far attributes more than 1,300 deaths between 2005 and 2017 to issues of food, water, or fuel insecurity. Researchers believe that number is sure to rise.

“As climate change increases the severity of extreme weather over the coming years and we see continuing political instability in key oil producing regions, there is likely to be an increased frequency and severity of physical shocks to our food, fuel and water supplies… Without proper strategies to combat these shocks it is likely that reactive policies from governments will only make the impacts of these shocks worse, leading to bigger chaos events and more deaths”, says Professor Jones.

“It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes protests about rising fuel or food costs to turn violent, and this is where the risks lie.”

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Runaway emissions are causing oceans to warm and ice caps to melt at rapid speed – since 1993, the rate of warming has doubled. Unless global efforts are made, volatile weather can only be expected to worsen. Copyright: Bernhard Staehli / Shuttershock.com

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Acclimation Pressures

Coastal dwellings and atoll islands are rushing to adapt. Cities like Jakarta and Shanghai have built enormous sea walls, and more sparsely populated island nations like Fiji are opting to relocate entire communities to safer ground. But many cities and island nations lack resources to manage their responses, and are in particularly acute danger as the seas rise.

In many places, infrastructure will be impacted and must be ready to change in order to handle the increased stress of the new climate. The European Commission has noted that roads, bridges, and railways will be especially affected, as extreme heat can lead to thermal expansion and cause congestion. This, in turn, is sure to impact productivity, thus affecting the entire economic landscape.

Climate change will impact the health of entire populations due to an increasing lack of clean air and water, nutritious food, and secure shelter. Diseases will spread as ticks and their bites, for example, experience farther reach due to warmer temperatures that will allow the insect to survive longer. Mosquitoes, sandflies, and the pathogens they carry will also thrive, resulting in the detriment of human health overall.

Studies have also revealed that modifications in plant and animal characteristics are already occurring, with many moving northward as the planet heats up. There is much concern that there be no outrunning this, however, as the insufficient rate of migration in comparison to the pace of global warming may soon drive many species to the brink of extinction.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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