With over 10,000 people in Derna still missing, feared dead, and, according to the UN, at least 11,300 confirmed dead at this stage, the finger of responsibility for this catastrophe is pointing at human-caused global warming. This finding has been firmly established by a new study released today by the World Weather Attribution team.
Accelerations in the Earth’s water cycle caused by rising temperatures made last week’s heavy rainfall up to 50 times more likely in Libya, with building on flood plains, poor dam maintenance, and other local factors turning the extreme weather into a humanitarian disaster.
Hannah Ritchie, deputy editor at the highly regarded ‘Our World in Data’, highlighted that the shocking deaths in Libya have eclipsed the database records for flooding deaths in the region.
These records, from the emergency events database (EM-DAT), date back almost 100 years, demonstrating the rising frequency of extreme events. The shocking images of Derna before and after the extreme weather led commentators to suggest that fewer places around the world are now safe from statistically rare events.
Increased temperatures lead to heavier rainfall
For Libya, the scientists found that human-caused climate change made the event up to 50 times more likely to happen, with up to 50% more rain during the period, as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
The report stated:
“ … increased temperatures generally lead to heavier rainfall and studies project heavier rain in the region as temperatures rise; they could find no evidence of factors that might be making heavy rain less likely and balancing the influence of climate change; and weather station data in the region shows a trend towards heavier rain.”
In Libya, a combination of several factors including long-lasting armed conflict, political instability, potential design flaws and poor maintenance of dams all contributed to the disaster. The interaction of these factors, and the very heavy rain that was worsened by climate change, created the extreme destruction.
‘Increasing resilience is paramount for saving lives’
Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, said:
“The Mediterranean is a hotspot of climate change-fueled hazards. After a summer of devastating heatwaves and wildfires with a very clear climate change fingerprint, quantifying the contribution of global warming to these floods proved more challenging. But there is absolutely no doubt that reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience to all types of extreme weather is paramount for saving lives in the future.”
Disaster management needs to be proactive
Julie Arrighi, director at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said:
“This devastating disaster shows how climate change-fueled extreme weather events are combining with human factors to create even bigger impacts, as more people, assets and infrastructure are exposed and vulnerable to flood risks. However, there are practical solutions that can help us prevent these disasters from becoming routine such as strengthened emergency management, improved impact-based forecasts and warning systems, and infrastructure that is designed for the future climate.”
Professor Jonathan Overpeck, climate scientist at the University of Michigan, commented:
“Climate change and all the flooding around the globe? The short answer is it’s only going to get worse if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels. Much worse if we don’t do it fast.”
These climate events are becoming more persistent
Professor Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, and author of the forthcoming Our Fragile Moment, told Yorkshire Bylines:
“Weather attribution studies are useful but they are limited. Climate change is causing more extreme summer weather events (floods, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms) in part due to factors that are well captured in models. For example, a warmer atmosphere has more water vapor, so there is the potential for greater flooding, and warmer oceans produce stronger storms which are capable of entraining more moisture into them, moisture that they turn into flooding rains.
“As we’ve shown in our own work, however, climate change is impacting these events in ways that are not well captured in the models used in these attribution studies. In particular, they don’t capture the persistence of these events, which is part of what makes them so deadly and damaging. That is a subtle consequence of the way that the pattern of warming (more warming in the polar regions than in the subtropics) impacts the jet stream, locking it into stationary wavy pattern associated with persistent weather extremes. For this reason, my belief is that these attribution studies actually underestimate the impact human-caused climate change is having on these events.”
The worst is yet to come
Professor Sonia I Seneviratne, vice-chair of a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reinforced this message about underestimating the impact of climate change, warning that the worst is yet to come.
“Heavy precipitation events are becoming more frequent and more intense in land regions with every additional increment of global warming. What we see now is not as bad as what will happen with 1.5℃ of global warming.”
With devastating floods recorded in multiple countries in the first half of September, if this is the extreme weather that we are experiencing at 1.2℃, then a frightful future awaits – unless drastic and meaningful climate action is taken by all countries to counter the global threat.
We need to remember that the carbon pollution that the attribution study has linked this event to has contributors. Simply identifying that human-caused global warming has made this flooding in Libya 50 times more likely does not solve the problem. Climate reparations may need to come sooner.