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Op-Ed: German floods – Horrendous damage and a dangerous new era

There is no point at all in assuming this massive deluge “just happened”. Extreme weather can’t “just happen”.

Some described the scene like a war zone. — © AFP
Some described the scene like a war zone. — © AFP

The European floods have hit hard and fast. The Rhineland Palatinate is a disaster area. The huge floods were caused by rainstorms that dumped 148 litres of water per square metre in 48 hours. The usual rainfall is 80 litres in a month, and this happened in mid-summer.

The flooding was so fast many lost their lives. The floods have annihilated old villages. Whole towns are now just a mess of buildings smashed together like someone was sweeping them up with a broom.

Perhaps billions of tons for all anyone knows, of water and materials have been swept away downstream in this unprecedented flooding. Even a Mississippi flood with telescopic sights couldn’t have done more focused damage to the region, which has been effectively obliterated in some places.

Also notable is that the older buildings have had their foundations undercut as well. Obviously, they had never been under this sort of stress before, and many of these buildings are quite old indeed.  The standing buildings are similarly compromised and likely to be uninhabitable and irreparable.

This is a massive economic hit, far beyond the appalling physical damage. There are huge risks to infrastructure, and even basic drainage management.

Even Germany wasn’t prepared enough

There are some truly grim global warnings in the aftermath of these floods. This incredible disaster happened in a country with advanced flood monitoring and prepared responses to flooding. Everything happened much too fast.

The terrain in many areas is hilly and forested. This sort of terrain is usually good for soaking up some of the rain and diverting some of it downstream away from the rivers. Not this time. The sheer scale of the downpour was too quick and too high a volume for terrain to mitigate the floods at all.

It’s more than likely that high preparedness has saved many lives. The response was quick by any standards and effective to the extent it was able to be effective. The response also managed to do what was doable despite horrifying levels of difficulty, inaccessibility, and many dangers.

It looks like some of these beautiful old villages will have to be relocated. These areas are obviously unsafe, and a second downpour could wipe them out completely. The local soil structure has been severely impacted, making foundations a dubious proposition.

This could happen anywhere on Earth.

The miracle is that more people, a lot more, didn’t die. The problem is that whatever they were able to do wasn’t enough. This problem will not simply go away. A new global challenge has arisen, and it’s a very dangerous one.  

There is no point at all in assuming this massive deluge “just happened”. Extreme weather can’t “just happen”. This isn’t a subject for debate on any level. There are a lot of environmental factors required to deliver so much rain so fast. This is unequivocally the result of atmospheric warming. The warmer atmosphere can hold much more water, and this is what happens when it does.

No other set of circumstances but a hurricane can deliver this level of rain this fast, and hurricanes work on basically the same thermal principles. Hurricanes lift and dump huge amounts of water through thermal dynamics. That’s what’s happened in Germany, without the hurricane winds.

Summer temperatures would have been quite enough to set off this process. Water accumulates in the atmosphere, then gets dumped, all at the same time.

This type of flooding, therefore, could happen anywhere on Earth. It’s just a matter of where conditions are right. To put this in perspective – Any watercourse, anywhere on the planet, could become a massive liability and transport huge amounts of water exactly where you don’t want it to be. It’s that dangerous.

Some possible benefits, after the deluge

There are a few positives, if at great cost:

  1. The weather patterns which formed the deluge would be recorded over time. This means these high-risk weather patterns can be recognized and responses planned accordingly.
  2. Drainage infrastructure can mitigate future events. This may require large-scale drainage work, diversion drains, and water-harvesting, but this type of work can solve the risks of exposure to flooding effectively.
  3. This is a “German” flood because the Lower Rhine is well drained in Belgium and the Netherlands. Those downstream drainage systems would have prevented a lot of damage. If even the Dutch and Belgians weren’t prepared, it simply indicates the scale of the problems. The flood mitigation needs to happen upstream, in Germany, to prevent further disasters.
  4. The Rhine is a critical communications river. The Rhineland-Palatinate is a crucial economic region. These areas must remain commercially and infrastructurally viable and be properly protected. Other regions on Earth are similar in importance and risk requirements. This is not something you can do when you get around to it; planning needs to start now, and the Rhineland could be a pilot program for management.
  5. Water management in stop/start rainfall and flooding environments needs to be extremely efficient. Flooding and water shortages often go together. That’s usually because the floodwaters are allowed to simply escape. Water harvesting and river replenishment in times of low water levels could be a major benefit.
  6. The effect on water tables downstream also needs to be monitored. This is a silent but potentially dangerous threat. When water tables receive a lot more water, they can turn the soil above them into soup. It will be necessary to check the damage, another useful mitigation pilot program.

Get ready, world, this is likely to be a wet, expensive, bumpy ride until the climate stabilizes.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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