German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing tough questions Wednesday as she tours damage from the devastating floods last week that killed at least 165 people.
Many Germans are asking why their country — a rich nation famous for its engineering and its leading role in climate change negotiations — could be caught so tragically off guard when faced with the kind of extreme weather that climate scientists have been warning about for years.
Friederike Otto, an associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford and an associate professor in the Global Climate Science Programme, studies the connections between climate change and extreme weather events.
Otto says it doesn’t come as a surprise to her when meteorologists estimate a small area in Germany could see more than 18 gallons of water downpour in just a few hours.
“It’s one of the very well-known aspects of climate change that we see more extreme rainfall … coming down in a shorter time,” she says.
It’s something many countries, especially tropical ones, are already experiencing due to their hotter climates, Otto says.
In other countries familiar with severe floods, such as the United States and Bangladesh, advisories warn people about imminent weather events and allow them to prepare accordingly. The alerts are sent out on phones and broadcast on television and radio.
Germany, however, doesn’t have a weather alert system, she says.
“People are not educated that weather can be dangerous,” Otto says. “I think [it’s] one of the really important aspects of why the death toll was so high.”
In addition to building up its efforts to educate the public, she says it’s essential that Germany re-naturalize its built-up floodplains, flat areas of land beside rivers or streams. Germany is an industrial, densely populated area, which has caused water to build up in its floodplains over time, affecting flood exposure and risk.
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