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Italy's deadly floods are yet another example of climate change extremes, experts say

A man walks his dog through a flooded street in the village of Castel Bolognese, Italy.
A man walks his dog through a flooded street in the village of Castel Bolognese, Italy. Copyright AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Copyright AP Photo/Luca Bruno
By Euronews Green with APTN
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Dry, impermeable ground means heavy rains are unlikely to help northern Italy after two years of drought.

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Floods that sent rivers of mud tearing through towns in Italy’s northeast are another drenching dose of climate change's all-or-nothing weather extremes, scientists say. 

It is something that has been happening around the globe.

The coastal region of Emilia-Romagna was struck twice. First by heavy rain two weeks ago on the drought-parched ground that could not absorb it leading to overflowing riverbanks overnight. This was followed by the deluge that killed 13 and caused billions in damages this week. 

More than 10,000 people fled their homes, some plucked from rooftops or balconies by rescue helicopters and others ferried out on dinghies

The drought-parched region had already estimated some €1 billion in losses from heavy rains earlier this month, but the regional president, Stefano Bonaccini, said the losses now reached multiple billions given the widespread damage to farmland, storefronts and infrastructure.

Why is Emilia-Romagna particularly vulnerable?

In a changing climate, more rain is coming - but it’s falling on fewer days in less useful and more dangerous downpours.

The hard-hit Emilia-Romagna region was particularly vulnerable. Its location between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic Sea trapped a weather system that dumped half the average annual amount of rain in 36 hours this week. 

The Superior Institute for Environmental Protection and Research has identified Emilia-Romagna as one of the most at-risk Italian regions for flooding, where both territory and populations face a greater danger of “hazard scenarios” than the rest of the country.

AP Photo/Luca Bruno
A man walks in a flooded street in the village of Castel Bolognese, Italy.AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Antonello Pasini, a climate scientist at Italy’s National Research Council, said a trend has been establishing itself. 

“An increase in rainfall overall per year, for example, but a decrease in the number of rainy days and an increase in the intensity of the rain in those few days when it rains,” he said.

Italy’s north has been parched by two years of drought, thanks to less-than-average snowfall during the winter months. Melting snow from the Alps, Dolomites and Apennines normally provides the steady runoff through spring and summer that fills Italy's lakes, irrigates the agricultural heartland and keeps the Po and other key rivers and tributaries flowing.

AP Photo/Luca Bruno
A couple walk in a flooded road of Lugo, Italy.AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Without that normal snowfall in the mountains, plains have gone dry and riverbeds, lakes and reservoirs have receded. They cannot recover even when it rains because the ground is essentially “impermeable” and the rain just washes over the topsoil and out to the sea, Pasini said.

“So the drought is not necessarily compensated for by these extreme rains,” he said, “Because in northern Italy, the drought depends more on snow being stored in the Alps than on rain. And in the last two years, we have had very little snow.”

We can’t just pretend that nothing is happening.
Nello Musumeci
Civil Protection Minister

Civil Protection Minister Nello Musumeci said the new normal of extreme weather events in the Mediterranean requires Italians to adapt and Italy to rethink its flood protections nationwide. 

He cited a fierce storm-triggered landslide last autumn on the southern island of Ischia, off Naples, that left 12 dead.

“We can’t just pretend that nothing is happening,” he said Thursday. “Everything must change: the programming in hydraulic infrastructures must change, the engineering approach must change.”

He said those changes are necessary to prevent the types of floods that have left entire towns swamped with mud after two dozen rivers burst their banks.

Prevention is key as extreme weather becomes more common

The key going forward is prevention, he said, acknowledging that’s not an easy sell due to costs.

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“We are not a nation inclined to prevention. We like to rebuild more than to prevent,” he told Sky TG24.

Italy is far from alone in lurching from dry to deluge. California and the United States West sloshed its way from a record-setting megadrought to at least a dozen atmospheric rivers dousing the state with so much rain that a long-dormant lake reappeared.

“The rainiest events seem to be in many places getting rainier,” Princeton University climate scientist Gabe Vecchi said Thursday.

AP Photo/Luca Bruno
Firefighters rescue an elderly man in the flooded village of Castel Bolognese, Italy.AP Photo/Luca Bruno

In 2021, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific panel said it was an “established fact” that humans' greenhouse gas emissions had made for more frequent and intense weather extremes.

The panel called heat waves the most obvious but said heavy precipitation events had also likely increased over most of the world.

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The UN report said “there is robust evidence” that record rainfall and one-in-five, one-in-ten and one-in-twenty year type rainfall “became more common since the 1950s.”

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