Over the recent months, Greece and Libya bore witness to the wrath of climate change. Carbon pollution contributed to heavier rains and stronger floods in the region. However, scientists underscore a complex interplay of other human factors.

A study conducted by World Weather Attribution (WWA) unveiled that global heating has increased the likelihood of devastating rainfall in Libya by up to 50 times and in Greece by up to 10 times. This revelation sheds light on the undeniable connection between carbon pollution and extreme weather events, pushing the boundaries of what we consider normal climate patterns.

The group of scientists behind this research attempts to comprehend extreme weather events as they occur. Dr Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London and a co-author of the report, emphasised that the Mediterranean region is especially susceptible to climate-change-related hazards. The combination of warming seas, changing atmospheric patterns, and increased greenhouse gas emissions has created a perfect storm for such catastrophic events.

However, pinpointing the exact role of climate change in these events is a challenge compared to recent wildfires and heat waves. This complexity arises from the interplay of various factors, both natural and human-induced. Despite these challenges, Dr Otto stressed the paramount importance of reducing vulnerabilities and enhancing resilience against all forms of extreme weather, highlighting that these measures could be the key to saving lives in the future.

One recent calamity that brought this issue to the forefront was Storm Daniel, which wreaked havoc on multiple Mediterranean countries in the first half of September. Torrential rains and devastating floods caused the loss of numerous lives in Europe and Turkey, underscoring the urgent need for action.

The vulnerability of people in these regions to such rains is exacerbated by factors such as building homes in floodplains, deforestation, and neglecting dam maintenance. These local conditions have proven to be a deadly combination.

In Libya, two old dams near the city of Derna burst, leading to the annihilation of entire neighbourhoods. The confirmed death toll soared into the thousands. The recent rainfall in Libya exceeded any previously recorded levels, as outlined in the World Weather Attribution (WWA) report.

The ongoing conflict and political instability in Libya compounded the impact of the flooding, making the response to the disaster even more complex. One glaring contributor to this catastrophe was the inadequate maintenance of the dams, which had been constructed in the 1970s. This neglectful approach significantly contributed to their failure during the extreme weather event.

There is growing speculation that these dams may have been designed based on historical rainfall data that underestimated the potential intensity of extreme storms. This oversight further increased their vulnerability and ultimately led to their failure. The WWA report emphasized that the large water storage capacity of these dams heightened the risk during extreme rainfall events.

Maja Vahlberg, representing the Red Cross Red Crescent climate centre and co-author of the report, underlined the urgent need for proactive measures to reduce exposure to flood risks.

In Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey, the heavy rains that caused havoc were attributed to global heating, intensifying them by up to 40%, according to the scientists. These extreme rainfall events are now anticipated to occur approximately once a decade in the region. In central Greece, where the majority of the damage occurred, such events may only be anticipated every 80 to 100 years. Vassiliki Kotroni, a research director at the National Observatory of Athens and co-author of the report, described the floods as a “breaking point” and urgently called for the implementation of early warning systems and the development of resilient infrastructure in the face of climate change.

Urbanization and deforestation are identified as key factors that significantly contributed to the destruction. These changes to the landscape increased the number of people and houses exposed to the floodwaters while simultaneously diminishing the natural capacity of the environment to absorb and manage stormwater. The combination of urbanisation and deforestation amplified the impact of the floods, making them more damaging and destructive. This underscores the vital importance of incorporating land-use planning and environmental conservation into strategies for mitigating the effects of extreme weather events.

The WWA researchers acknowledged that their statistical analysis faced limitations due to the absence of long-term data from local weather stations and the challenge of climate models accurately representing rare extremes over small areas. Nevertheless, they expressed confidence in their conclusion that global heating had indeed played a role in these extreme weather events.

Human activities have contributed to a 1.2°C increase in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, with Europe experiencing nearly double that rate of warming. This rise in temperatures results in hotter air, which can hold more water vapour, increasing the potential for heavy rainfall. The researchers highlighted that they did not find evidence of factors that may be reducing the likelihood of heavy rainfall events, underscoring the role of climate change in intensifying these events.

Julie Arrighi, a director at the Red Cross Red Crescent climate centre, stressed the importance of practical solutions to prevent natural disasters from becoming routine occurrences. These solutions include strengthening emergency management, enhancing impact-based forecasts and warning systems, and designing infrastructure that can withstand the challenges posed by the changing climate.