Web Extra  Friday, August 15

Floods wreak havoc in Europe

Rain-drenched and flood-soaked, Russia and central European countries are reeling under the impact of freak storm weather that has hit them this past week. On Wednesday, even as southeastern Russia attempted to recover from flash floods that killed 58 people in resorts along the Black Sea, people in the Czech Republic held their breath as the Vlatva River threatened to flood the center of their historic capital, Prague. Now, the worst weather seems be over in the Czech Republic, but further downstream the German city of Dresden is fighting the onslaught of the waves.

With the Danube, Elbe and other rivers in the area bursting their banks, local authorities in the region fear the worst floods in a hundred years. The Vltava river, a tributary of the Elbe, recorded a flow rate of 4,500 cubic meters per second according to Vaclav Basa, a Czech hydrologist, as reported in The Prague Post. This flow rate is almost a hundred times the normal summer average. As the waters continue to rise, tens of thousands of people are being evacuated from their homes. In Prague's downtown alone, efforts to evacuate 50,000 people are underway.

A low-pressure system coupled with high temperatures is to blame for the excessive rains. As reported by the United Kingdom's Meteorologic Office on Aug. 13, normal summer conditions over central and southern Europe are characterized by high pressure systems, while areas of low pressure form further north. The temperatures these low pressure systems normally encounter are cool, and they do not pick up much water. However, with the high pressure systems weakened this summer, the low pressure systems crossed into Europe at lower and warmer latitudes, setting the stage for severe storm weather.

This year severe flooding has also affected parts of southern China, India, Korea and the Philippines while other regions of the world such as Southern Africa, the United States and Australia are experiencing droughts. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) system, disrupting normal east-to-west Pacific atmospheric circulation and ocean conditions has been recognized in the past as affecting weather conditions worldwide. The Met Office reports that it is hard to know if ENSO has played a part in Europe's present flood disaster as links between Europe's weather and El Niño are poorly understood.

Even as meteorologists and climatologists attempt to decipher the causes for the heavy rains, hydrologists, urban planners and ordinary citizens are trying to understand the mechanics of severe flooding. Along with natural factors, such as continuous and heavy rain, land use policies are believed to have exacerbated the situation. The New York Times, Aug. 13, reports that Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla blames industrial farming and forestry practices of the erstwhile Communist regime as contributing to the disaster. Dense urban centers with fewer trees and more asphalt, thus less runoff area, are also blamed.

Assessing flood causes will take time. For now, countries are focused on the immediate concerns of coping with the emergency of rising waters and dealing with the aftermath of devastation and basic recovery.

Salma Monani

For ongoing coverage of the crisis including photo galleries, visit: The Prague Post, BBC world news, The New York Times
United Kingdom Met Office
World Meteorological Organization has links to the meteorological agencies of affected countries.
View atellite images of the floods at Dartmouth Flood Observatory.

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