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Floods in Italy: Scientists investigate cause of 'one-in-200-year' disaster

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The Local/AFP ([email protected])
Floods in Italy: Scientists investigate cause of 'one-in-200-year' disaster
Flooded streets in the town of Cesena after heavy rains caused flooding across Italy's northern Emilia Romagna region on May 17th, 2023. (Photo by Alessandro SERRANO / AFP)

After floods devastated much of the northeastern Emilia Romagna region this month, researchers said on Wednesday that climate change wasn't the only factor behind the "rare" event.

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After three cyclones hit the northern Italian region in mid-May, a team of researchers used computer simulations and past observations to investigate whether human-caused climate change was directly responsible - but found things were more complex than that.

IN VIDEOS: How floods devastated Italy's Emilia-Romagna region

Seventeen people died and tens of thousands were forced to leave their homes after three exceptionally heavy downpours hit the Emilia Romagna region within three weeks, causing landslides and floods that destroyed farmland, towns and businesses.

The World Weather Attribution (WWA) group of climate scientists said May had seen "the wettest event of this type" for two centuries.

Their study estimated there was a 1-in-200 chance that three cyclones would strike within a three-week period, and the team cautioned that this exceptional event meant more time for research was needed.

“This is not the end of the story,″ said study co-author Davide Faranda, a researcher in climate physics at the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute in France, during a panel to present the findings.

“This event is too rare,″ he said 

Car underwater in Emilia Romagna

Entire neighbourhoods in Cesena, Emilia Romagna were left submerged by flooding on May 17th, 2023. Photo by Alessandro SERRANO / AFP

The group – whose goal is to demonstrate reliable links between global warming and certain weather phenomena – said its models suggest such events, in this region at this time of year, are not becoming more frequent or intense.

"It is relatively unusual for an attribution study to find that extreme rainfall was not made more likely by greenhouse gas emissions," the WWA said in a press statement.

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Warmer atmospheres can hold more moisture and therefore often result in more frequent and intense rainfall.

But the group said this was offset by a decrease in the number of low-pressure systems in the central Mediterranean, linked to climate change, which mean less heavy rain.

Drought and urbanisation

It underlined that other climate change-related events are increasing across Italy, with an overall trend towards drought but also changes in seasons leading to potentially less frequent but more intense downpours.

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The impact of the Emilia Romagna floods was exacerbated by a two-year drought in northern Italy which left the land dry and hard and unable to absorb the water.

Decades of urbanisation had also increased the flood risk, the study said.

Flooded bungalows in Cesena on May 17, 2023 after heavy rains caused major flooding in central-northern Italy. (Photo by Alessandro SERRANO / AFP)

"Our statistical findings acknowledge the uniqueness of such an event which was driven by an unprecedented sequence of three low-pressure systems in the central Mediterranean," said Faranda.

He emphasised that it was not that climate change had no role, but the relationship went beyond the organisation's statistical analyses.

"Although spring heavy rainfall episodes are not increasing in Emilia Romagna, extreme rainfall is increasing in other parts of Italy," he said.

Almost 94 percent of Italian municipalities are at risk of landslides, floods and coastal erosion, according the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA).

Emilia Romagna is particularly at risk, with a history of flooding and landslides, although nothing even comparable to this month's disaster has occurred since 1939, said the study, conducted by 13 researchers from Europe and the US.

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