Climate change has made extreme rainfall and floods like those that brought deadly devastation to western Europe last month more likely to occur, according to a new scientific study.
Around 200 people died and towns were left in ruins when rivers in Germany and Belgium overflowed their banks after heavy rains this summer. Streets turned into torrential rivers, sweeping away vehicles and reducing houses to rubble. Stranded residents were airlifted from rooftops and rescued in boats after floodwaters inundated their homes.
Global warming has made these kinds of events between 1.2 and 9 times more likely, the study said.
Released Tuesday by the World Weather Attribution initiative, the research used historical records and computer simulations to examine how temperatures affected rainfall from the late 19th century to the present.
While the study hasn’t been assessed by independent scientists yet, its authors use widely accepted methods to conduct rapid assessments of specific weather events such as floods, droughts and heat waves.
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“Climate change made these events more likely and also more intense,” said Sjoukje Philip, one of the lead authors of the study and a researcher at the Dutch weather agency KNMI. “More rainfall can now fall than it could have 100 or 150 years ago, so we do now see the link with climate change.”
Nearly 40 researchers from Europe, the U.S. and New Zealand were involved in the study from organizations including the University of Oxford, the U.K.'s Met Office, Germany's weather service and Columbia University.
Looking at the area between the Netherlands and the northern Alps, the study found that climate change increased the intensity of rainfall in a single day in the summer by between 3 and 19 percent, when compared to a climate 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than it is currently.
If the planet continues to warm, the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather events like the floods would increase even further, it found.
Researchers were able to detect the effect of human-induced climate change on rainfall by looking at a larger area, despite the variability of rainfall in the smaller region.
In July, German politicians warned that the floods were connected to climate change and pressed for action to battle it. During a visit to one flood-ravaged town, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that "we must get faster in the battle against climate change.”
According to Philip, the link found between climate change and extreme weather is relevant not only in regard to heavier rainfall in Europe, but also for other extreme weather events like the heat waves in the U.S. this summer.
In addition to cutting emissions, “we need to think about how to adapt,” Philip said. “How can we change our behavior so we can deal with these kinds of extremes, because they will become more extreme in the future as climate change becomes more severe.”
CORRECTION (Aug. 26, 2021, 4:33 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of one of the study’s lead authors. She is Sjoukje Philip, not Philips.