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Climate change and crumbling infrastructure made Libya’s devastating floods worse, scientists say

Floodwaters from Mediterranean storm Daniel are visible on Tuesday 12 September 2023.
Floodwaters from Mediterranean storm Daniel are visible on Tuesday 12 September 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Jamal Alkomaty
Copyright AP Photo/Jamal Alkomaty
By Euronews Green with AP
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‘Ferocious strength’ of storm that caused Libya’s devastating floods was powered by climate change, scientists say.


The cyclone that caused devastating floods in Libya is the latest extreme weather event to carry the hallmarks of climate change, scientists say.

The Mediterranean storm dumped torrential rain on the Libyan coast set off flooding that’s killed thousands of people. The death toll has risen to over 5,100 with thousands still missing.

Storm Daniel - dubbed a 'medicane' for its hurricane-like characteristics - drew enormous energy from extremely warm sea water. And a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapour that can fall as rain, experts say.

It’s difficult to attribute a single weather event to climate change, “but we know there are factors that could be at play” with storms like Daniel that make it more likely, says Kristen Corbosiero, an atmospheric scientist at the University at Albany.

What is a medicane?

Medicanes form once or twice a year in the Mediterranean, and are most common from September to January. 

They're not generally true hurricanes, but can reach hurricane strength on rare occasions, says Simon Mason, chief climate scientist at the Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Storm Daniel formed as a low-pressure weather system more than a week ago and became blocked by a high-pressure system, dumping extreme amounts of rain on Greece and surrounding areas before inundating Libya.

How did climate change impact the floods in Libya?

Warming waters also are causing cyclones to move more slowly, which allows them to dump much more rain, says Raghu Murtugudde, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and emeritus professor at University of Maryland.

What's more, he says, human activity and climate change together “are producing compound effects of storms and land use.” 

Flooding in Greece was worsened by wildfires, loss of vegetation and loose soils, and the catastrophic flooding in Libya was made worse by poorly maintained infrastructure.

Years of war and lack of a central government have left it with crumbling infrastructure that was vulnerable to the intense rains. Libya is currently the only country yet to develop a climate strategy, according to the United Nations.

'Nowhere is immune from devastating storms'

Dams that collapsed outside Libya’s eastern city of Derna unleashed flash floods that may have killed thousands. Hundreds of bodies were found on Tuesday and 10,000 people are reported still missing after floodwaters smashed through dams and washed away entire neighbourhoods of the city.

But the warm water that allowed Storm Daniel to intensify and fed the exceptional rainfall are a phenomenon being observed around the globe, says Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center.

“Nowhere is immune from devastating storms like Daniel, as demonstrated by recent flooding in Massachusetts, Greece, Hong Kong, Duluth, and elsewhere,” says Francis.

Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist and meteorologist at Leipzig University in Germany, cautions that scientists haven't had time yet to study Storm Daniel, but noted that the Mediterranean has been 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer this year than in the past. 

And while weather patterns that formed Daniel would have occurred even without climate change, the consequences probably wouldn't have been as severe.

In a cooler world, Daniel probably “wouldn’t have developed as quickly and rapidly as it did,” Haustein says. “And it wouldn’t have hit Libya with such ferocious strength.”

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