31 December 2010

Going to Extremes in 2010, part 1: the Floods

WaterLink International recently posed the question "2010: Year of the Floods?" with an overview of just four major events that happened this year.  Granted, they picked out four of the larger flood events, but those were just the exemplars that got stuck in the short memory of the media.  Many of the links here are to Wikipedia articles, which retain much more than local media outlets.  It seemed to me, a watcher, that somewhere new was getting hit every month.  And in actuality, that was true:
  • January: the first floods and mudslides of the year for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with 85 deaths and 4,000+ displaced. Also, the first of two flood events in Albania, with 5,300+ displaced along the Drin River.
  • February: a strong Atlantic storm crashed through the Portugese island of Madeira, interacting with the island's sharp topography to produce flash floods and mudslides on the south side of the island, with 42 deaths reported.
  • March: floods in Queensland, Australia are only the first of a strengthening La Niña episode and its impacts on the continent.
  • April: the second episode of floods and attendant mudslides in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with an additional 212 deaths and 15,000+ displaced.
  • May: extreme rains over two days brought 1,000-year statistical flood levels to the Cumberland River through Tennessee, Kentucky and northern Mississippi in the United States, with 31 deaths reported.
  • May, June and August: flooding events throughout central Europe, especially in Poland, with 37 deaths and 23,000+ displaced.
  • May through August: flooding storms, monsoon rains, and landslides across southern China led to nearly 3,200 deaths, 1,000+ missing persons, and approximately 15.2M displaced.  Water levels on the Yangtze River behind the recently-completed Three Gorges Dam peaked at just under 159 m on 23 July, well above the dam's flooding "alarm level" at 145 m.
  • June: river and flash flooding in Var, France, was considered the worst flooding in that region adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea in almost 200 years, with 25 deaths and 1,000+ displaced. Floods in northeastern Brazil washed away whole villages, with 51 deaths and 120,000+ displaced.
  • June and July: flooding in Romania and Ukraine, eastern Europe, with 21 deaths and 9,500+ displaced.
  • July: floods from monsoon rains in Pakistan washed out much of the Indus delta, causing nearly 2,000 deaths, 20M+ displaced, and an ongoing humanitarian disaster with regional and global consequences.  NASA's Earth Observatory captured numerous images of this event.
  • August: heavy rains and flash floods in Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed region between northern Pakistan and India, with 193 deaths and 1,000+ displaced.
  • August through October: numerous events contributed to flooding in western Africa, especially in the Sahel and Sudanian savanna regions, swelling the Niger River to its highest stage in 80 years, with 8 deaths and 111,000+ displaced.
  • September: flooding in Slovenia, southern Europe, with three deaths and more than 60% of the country affected.
  • October through November: late-season monsoon rains flooded parts of Thailand, with 232 deaths and a reported 7M+ displaced.
  • November: a series of floods struck northern Malaysia and Thailand following landfall of tropical cyclone Jal, with 4 deaths and 50,000+ displaced.
  • November through December: flooding from extended monsoon rainfall events in Colombia, with 174 deaths and a reported 1.5M+ displaced.
  • December: A second major flooding event in Albania, in many of the same areas as in January.  Also, the most extensive flooding in more than 50 years in Queensland, Australia, with their wettest spring on record (1.3 m of rain over the month) and 200,000+ displaced.  River floods in New South Wales, just to the south in Australia, have already destroyed vital wheat crops.  Attributed again to La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, the flood events in Australia are ongoing...
I didn't even count the Atlantic and Pacific tropical storm impacts, and factored in only one of the Indian Ocean cyclones that we saw this year.  Counting just these listed events and not including more numerous and smaller events around the globe, 2010 saw at least 6,315 deaths and more than 44 Million displaced persons worldwide due to floods.  Ongoing disasters in need of continued attention include those in Pakistan, China and Australia.  Though Pakistan grabbed (and still holds) much media attention, events in China seem an almost larger disaster with numerous major river basins still in flood.

While not every individual storm and flood event can be attributed to climate change per se, an overall pattern and trend is evident in the strength of monsoon systems here.  Are we ready for this extremity of climate change impacts to get even worse?  I ask because we are still just at the beginning of our quest to understand how much more intense the hydrologic cycle may get, with more extreme rainfall events among the many anticipated outcomes, and strengthening of tropical circulations one of the expected leading indicators of climate warming.  This was indeed a "year of the flood," but it won't be the only one...

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