NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
Floods in Europe: Impacts, and issues

  Rishika Yadav

About the Author

Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant in NIAS Europe Studies. 

From 04 October 2018 to the early days of November, a series of heavy floods wreaked havoc across Europe, originating in the Calabria region of Italy. Despite fluctuations in flood occurrences, a stable trend was observed in flood-related fatalities across Europe from 1980 to 2018. However, a team of researchers from Delft University discovered that while the number of floods had increased over the past 150 years, the resulting deaths and financial losses had actually decreased.

In July 2021, a tragic event unfolded as devastating floods struck western Europe, particularly  Germany and Belgium. The aftermath of these floods led to the loss of at least 120 lives and left numerous individuals unaccounted for. As an illustration, from the 12th to the 15th of July 2021, substantial rainfall occurred in regions including the UK, western Germany, and neighboring countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. A system of interconnected storms advanced from France towards Germany, coming to a standstill over the area for a duration of two days. 

Moving forward to August 2023, Storm Hans wreaked havoc across northern Europe and Scandinavia, resulting in two fatalities and widespread disruptions. This storm was emblematic of an unusually wet and windy summer experienced in northern Europe. 

Geographical mapping
Throughout the year 2023, Europe has been confronted by a series of devastating flood occurrences, predominantly attributed to intense rainfall and severe storms. The most severe impacts were concentrated in the northern and central regions of Europe, where some areas encountered an extraordinary 200 mm of rainfall within a mere 12-hour span. The subsequent floods caused miserable deaths, vast dislocations, significant property destruction, and extensive disruptions that impacted several nations.

One significant event unfolded in August 2023, driven by the onset of Storm Hans. Storm Hans brought powerful winds and rain to the Baltic region, causing damage, evacuations, and disruptions in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The storm's fierce winds and ceaseless downpours culminated in two fatalities and extensive chaos. This contrasted starkly with the scenario in Portugal and Spain, where persistent drought conditions prompted battles against raging wildfires. The events surrounding Storm Hans serve as a poignant reminder of the vulnerability of infrastructure in the face of extreme weather conditions. 

An additional notable flooding event in August 2023 affected regions including Austrian Carinthia, Slovenia, and Croatia due to intense rainfall. Notably, the levels of prominent rivers such as the Sava, Mur, and Drava surged to exceptionally high levels, inundating numerous settlements and disrupting essential transport connections. The ramifications of these floods extended beyond these initial areas, reaching parts of Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.

First, climate change-induced flooding in Europe. The behavior of the jet stream, a swift airflow affecting European weather, is influenced by phenomena like El Nino and La Nina. El Nino shifts the jet stream southward, leading to increased storm activity and rainfall in southern Europe, while northern Europe experiences drier conditions. In contrast, La Nina shifts the jet stream northward, causing amplified storms and precipitation in the north and cooler, drier weather in the south. These jet stream fluctuations elevate the susceptibility of different regions to floods or droughts, depending on the prevailing atmospheric setup. Escalated global warming heightens the likelihood of slow-moving storms, which can trigger intense and prolonged rainfall over land. This amplified occurrence of sluggish storms is linked to human-driven emissions, such as those from fossil fuels, which raise the planet's temperature. The resultant increase in temperature augments the frequency of slow-moving storms capable of releasing heavy rainfall, thereby raising the risk of more frequent and severe flooding incidents. Moreover, a complex atmospheric circulation phenomenon known as the "Zugstrasse Vb" pattern plays a crucial role in influencing flood dynamics across Europe, particularly during spring and summer. This pattern involves the movement of low-pressure zones that transport moist air from the Mediterranean Sea to Central Europe, resulting in heightened precipitation levels and subsequent flooding. The correlation between the "Zugstrasse Vb" pattern and past severe flooding incidents underscores the intricate interplay between atmospheric conditions and moisture transport, shaping the magnitude and intensity of floods in the region.

Second, multifaceted challenges in countries. The recent floods across several nations, notably Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, have given rise to a multitude of critical challenges affecting these regions. In Germany, a staggering toll of over 100 fatalities and the evacuation of thousands from the hardest-hit areas attest to the severity of the situation. Similarly, Belgium has witnessed more than 40 deaths, with dozens of individuals still unaccounted for. Additionally, the Netherlands has grappled with the displacement of thousands from their homes.

Moreover, the destructive floods have wreaked havoc on vital infrastructure, leading to dire consequences. Buildings, roads, bridges, railways, and power lines have been severely damaged or completely obliterated, thereby precipitating disruptions across transportation, energy distribution, and communication systems. For instance, the floods in Norway catalyzed the partial collapse of the Braskereidfoss dam and submerged a hydroelectric power plant. The Norwegian rail infrastructure company BaneNOR reported that torrential rains caused a steel truss railway bridge in southeast Norway to fall into the Laagen River. With countless bridges and highways succumbing to the floodwaters, Belgium also took the burden of the infrastructural destruction.

Moreover, factors like resource scarcity, coordination difficulties, and bureaucratic impediments have collectively hindered the recovery endeavors. In Germany, inhabitants have voiced dissatisfaction with authorities, citing delays and inadequate support for tasks like debris clearance and infrastructure repair. Similarly, in Norway, authorities have come under fire for perceived lapses in providing timely alerts and comprehensive evacuation strategies for flood-prone zones.

An additional consequence of these floods has been the widespread disruption of travel networks. Key train lines connecting various parts of Norway, including the Oslo to Bergen line, Oslo to Trondheim line, Roros line, and Rauma Railway, have ground to a halt for a prolonged period. The impact extends to local commuter train services within the Oslo region, such as the Gjøvik line and routes to and from the central Oslo hub. This predicament has compelled a significant advisory for motorists: to the extent feasible, refrain from using personal vehicles, as major thoroughfares linking Oslo and Trondheim are closed off and numerous rural roads remain inaccessible.

Mitigating the travel chaos, airline carriers Norwegian and SAS have augmented their service frequency between the capital and Bergen, as well as Trondheim, with the aim of facilitating intra-country movement. Notably, Norwegian reported rapid sell-outs of these supplementary flights, and they have committed to rolling out additional air travel options in the forthcoming days. While air travel itself has largely remained unscathed, passengers have confronted substantial hurdles in reaching airports promptly due to the suspension of rail operations. To address this predicament, supplementary bus transportation has been arranged from Oslo Airport, albeit passengers have reported instances of chaotic queues and inconveniences.

First, economic repercussions. The widespread floods have inflicted significant economic ramifications, impacting a wide spectrum of stakeholders, including businesses, farmers, and households, with the agricultural sector being particularly hard-hit. Notably, Switzerland bore witness to damage incurred by vital crops such as potatoes and vegetables, exacerbating losses in the agricultural realm. The economic toll in Germany reverberated with insured losses climbing to an estimated EUR 2.55 billion, underscoring the extent of financial detriment. Belgium, too, was not spared, grappling with insured losses soaring to a substantial EUR two billion.  Slovenia, for instance, witnessed a deluge of over 200 mm of rainfall within just 12 hours, resulting in extensive infrastructure damage amounting to an estimated EUR 500 million.

The economic repercussions extended beyond localized sectors, impacting pivotal facets like tourism, trade, and intricate supply chains. Norway, for instance, experienced a swift impact, as Gjensidige, an insurance entity, projected damages exceeding NOK 200 million, with expectations of further escalation owing to ongoing developments. This confluence of factors has yielded a composite economic fallout that has far-reaching implications for the affected nations and their intricate economic networks.

Second, the effects of climate change. Ecosystems, habitats, and biodiversity have suffered severe damage due to the floods. Contaminants such as sewage, chemicals, and waste have spread through floodwaters, posing risks to water sources and soil. Notable impacts include the effect on nature reserves like the Ahrweiler district in Germany, pollution of rivers like the Meuse river in Belgium, and landslides causing soil erosion and sedimentation in Norway. In summary, the causes of climate change-induced flooding in Europe are closely tied to alterations in atmospheric dynamics, including shifts in the jet stream, intensified storms from global heating, and complex circulation patterns. The effects encompass substantial economic losses, environmental damage, and contamination of vital resources, further underscoring the urgency of addressing climate change and its impact on flood occurrences.

In the face of recent devastating floods in Scandinavia, including Norway, the affected states have demonstrated diverse approaches to tackle the crisis, adapting to their unique resources, capabilities, and priorities. The states have swiftly activated their emergency services, including fire brigades, police, military personnel, and volunteers. Their collective efforts encompass critical tasks like rescuing individuals, providing medical aid, distributing essential supplies such as food and water, and clearing debris. States have taken strides to enhance their flood warning systems, incorporating tools such as flood maps, real-time alerts, sirens, and communication through social media channels. For instance, Norwegian authorities, responding to the crisis, issued a severe weather warning for eastern Norway, elevating the "red level" due to floods and landslides. The deployment of emergency services has been instrumental in rescuing individuals and addressing debris accumulation. The urgency of the situation is further emphasized by the fact that authorities are conducting house-to-house evacuations in locations like Hokksund, where water levels are alarmingly high. The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) has labeled the situation as "critical," reflecting the gravity of the crisis.

On a broader scale, the EU has promptly responded to the 2023 floods by extending critical assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. In Slovenia, following a plea for help in dealing with severe flooding, the EU facilitated swift support. Contributions from Austria, Croatia, Czechia, France, Germany, Italy, and Slovakia have encompassed vital resources such as helicopters, bridges, excavators, trucks, and more. The mobilization of over 130 European personnel, including engineers and liaison officers, showcases the EU's commitment to aiding member states during crises.

The EU has not only addressed immediate needs but also extended support to farmers affected by the floods in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Janusz Wojciechowski, EU Agriculture Commissioner, emphasized existing tools within the Common Agricultural Policy to facilitate restoration after natural disasters.

Taking a forward-looking stance, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre has embarked on vital adaptation measures. These measures range from enhancing flood forecasting and warning systems to promoting sustainable land use planning, advocating green infrastructure, and reinforcing risk communication and public awareness. 

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