Catastrophic European Floods Raise Climate Concerns

[Danube River], [Germany]

[May – June 2013]

[Daphnee Arielle Stowers] and [Teriya Lee]

 

 

According to Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a low pressure system was locked into place over Central Europe during late May of 2013 because of irregularities in global wind patterns (Inquirer, 2013). Heavy rainfall from the low pressure area surged water levels in the continent’s second largest waterway, the Danube River, and led to floods in countries such as Germany, Hungary and Austria (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013). Although Germany is arguably the most technologically advanced out of all the countries that were affected by the Danube, its flood defense was no match for the extreme force of twenty nine feet of water (Sky, 2013). The country lost approximately sixteen billion dollars in damage, and tens of thousands of people had to be evacuated from their homes. Train services were halted, and the entire country stood at a stand still as they looked – in terror and awe – upon nature sweeping over the nation (Spiegel, 2013).

 

A swimming pool surrounded by floodwater in Saxony-Anhalt. Reuters.
A swimming pool surrounded by floodwater in Saxony-Anhalt. Reuters.

 

The surprising circumstance is that Germany has faced floods recently. The historic flood of 2002 cost the German government eleven billion euros in damage, and is described as a “once in a hundred-year type flooding” by James Hurrell, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (USA Today, 2002). But survivors of the supposedly once-in-a-life time event managed to witness the same type of natural disaster eleven years later, and at a grander scale. The unexpected frequency of floods is on par with the warning that the European Environment Agency issued regarding climate change. It says that “rising temperatures in Europe will accentuate rainfall, leading to more frequent and intense floods in many regions”, although “to confirm the exact role played by climate change in flooding trends… it would be necessary to have more reliable, long term series data” (Inquirer, 2013). While one cannot confirm nor deny the role of climate change in causing natural disasters, it is an indisputable truth that disasters, like hurricanes and floods, are magnifying in frequency and scale.

 

Eilenburg in the 2002 flood. Picture Alliance.
Eilenburg in the 2002 flood. Picture Alliance.

 

The question now is, did the Germans learn their lesson from 2002, and why were its actions, if any, not enough to prevent the flood of 2013? The Germans did indeed implement a flood defense plan after 2002, and in some cases, the flood defense proved itself successful in 2013. The state of Saxony is such a case. Professor Jürgen Stamm from the Technical University in Dresden describes the defenses implemented by the state of Saxony after 2002: “Authorities developed 47 flood protection concepts with more than 1000 individual measures. Levees were reinforced, some were moved back… Bridges were remodeled… reservoirs were built.” The state of Saxony in Germany spent approximately 1.7 billion dollars on flood defense , and for the most part, the plan succeeded in keeping waters within boundary levels in 2013. However, not all states were as successful with their flood defense plan. The city of Wittenburg had to resort to piling sandbags in an attempt to hold back flooding because flood defense improvements from 2002 were not completed prior to the 2013 flooding. Opposition groups held back construction of defenses because they were concerned with large flood walls and dykes ruining their local landscapes, decreasing the value of their land, and raising water tables which result in damp cellars. Moreover, flood defenses were implemented per state, and a lack of coordination meant that the success of one state is the detriment of another. The success of Saxony negatively affected cities in the state of Magdeburg. In addition, over-development is cited as a contributing factor to the decreasing water absorbency of land. Winfried Lücking from Friends of the Earth Germany says ““Instead of confining rivers even further, levees should be moved back and space made for more flood plains: in cities and villages people must stop concreting over the ground and farmers must take up more natural cultivation. The land’s sponge-like qualities must be restored.” (Lawson, 2013)

 

Firefighters stand behind a dike made of sandbags in Lauenburg, Germany. AP Photo/dpa, Christian Charisius.
Firefighters stand behind a dike made of sandbags in Lauenburg, Germany. AP Photo/dpa, Christian Charisius.

 

Lücking’s use of the word “confining” is key. All of the defenses that the Germans implemented were urban in scale, and they aimed to trap the river in place, like a prison. It is an admirable endeavor for man to conquer nature by brute force, but it is one which will never come to fruition, as the 2013 flood has proven. Therefore, in looking at the long term, Germany should not focus all its efforts on incarcerating water, but rather to live in tandem with it. That is not to say the nation should totally abandon its levees and reservoirs. Rather, an integration of urban and domestic scale infrastructure is needed in order for Germany to prepare itself for water disasters promised in the future. Urban infrastructure, such as dams, floodplains and levees act as barricades against river swells. Domestic infrastructure, on the other hand, adapts the human habitat to withstand water. So that even when the barricade falls, economic and social damage can be minimized.

 

Germany can look up to its neighbor, the Netherlands, as a role-model. More than half of the Netherlands sit below sea level, making the country prone to water-invasion from nearby North Sea and surrounding rivers (Wolman, 2008). Over the course of history, it has suffered many catastrophic floods that changed even the contours of the land. But the Netherlands conquered its unfortunate geographical location, and currently boasts many successes, including the titles of “the world’s legal capital” and “the happiest place on Earth” in 2011 (Wikipedia, 2013). The country’s technologically advanced systems of flood defense play a role in its success, but so do innovative solutions in building design. In the continuation of this report, the roles of three Dutch flood control methods in advancing the country will be analyzed. In chronological order, they are: dikes, pumping engines, and amphibious houses.

 

From the 13th century onwards, the Dutch have been building dikes to border around swollen rivers. The materials of the dikes evolved, from mud, seaweed and reed, to boulders and masonry. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) However, this primitive form of flood control proved ineffective against more violent water forces. In the 16th century, due to the over-harvesting of peat, flooding, and erosion, the Haarlem Lake in the west of the Netherlands grew from 30 square kilometers to a beastly 170 square kilometers. Combined with coastal winds, the unwanted lake was seen as a threat to nearby Amsterdam. In the 19th century, the lake was emptied by a feat of engineering marvel known as the pumping engine. The industrial revolution allowed the Dutch to erase Haarlem Lake off its map. (Amsen 2013) But still, flooding problems continue to plague the country, including the North Sea flood of 1953, which killed 1836 people. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online) Although much extensive work has been done to the Dutch water barricade system, the inclination of flood control in the country is swinging towards the design of amphibious houses. Rather than having the government erect urban infrastructure at enormous scales, the responsibility for flood prevention is decentralized and passed down to the architect of domestic infrastructure. There are many methods of creating amphibious houses, but the common goal is to create an environment that is both habitable and flood-safe. (Bradley 2005) Over the past six hundred years, the Dutch has shown resilience against nature, and their efforts have evolved into a well integrated system of urban and domestic flood control infrastructure.

 

Dutch Boat Houses. Carla Banc.
Dutch Boat Houses. Carla Banc.

 

RESEARCH RESOURCES

Journalism
Wolman, David. “Before the Levees Break: A Plan to Save the Netherlands .” Wired Magazine. http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/17-01/ff_dutch_delta?currentPage=1 (accessed September 8, 2013).

Detailed explanation into how the flood-prone Netherlands implemented a drastic, country inclusive plan to prevent flooding.

Brock, Janna. “Danube River Flooding at 500 Year Levels.” The Brenner Brief RSS. June 11, 2013. Accessed September 08, 2013. http://www.thebrennerbrief.com/2013/06/11/danube-river-flooding-at-500-year-levels/.

This brief article states that the Danube River is on the brick of bursting due to staggering flood water levels not seen in five hundred years. The main countries affected were Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria. An evacuation of tens of thousands was a direct result of this horrific flood.

Encyclopedia Entries
Wikipedia. “Houseboat – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Sept. 2013. .

Gives details into how housing can be built along a flood prone area, utilizing examples from around the world, including Peru, Netherlands, India, Hong Kong and the United States.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Danube River,” accessed September 08, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/151250/Danube-River.

The Danube river is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga river. Within this encyclopedia entry discloses the hydrology of the river. There are varying components that affect the amount of water runoff. For one, in the upper Danube river the runoff corresponds to that of the Alpine tributaries, where the maximum occurs in June when melting of snow and ice in the Alps is most intensive whereas runoff drops to its lowest point during the winter.

Scholarly Articles
Klijn, Frans, Michaël van Buuren, and Sabine A.M. van Rooij. “Flood-risk Management Strategies For An Uncertain Future: Living With Rhine River Floods In The Netherlands?.” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 33, no. 3 (2004): 141.

A very detailed insight into flood risk management in the Netherlands. It discusses various alternatives to averting water flow, including green rivers, which is especially interesting as it raises the notion of human interference creating a “spatial connectivity” (pg 146).

Schiemer, Fritz. “Ecological Aspects of the Restoration Strategy for a River-Floodplain System on the Danube River in Austria.” In Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters, by Klement Tockner, 321-29. Wiley, 1997.

In large rivers with expansive floodplains, it is accepted that lateral connectivity is the major force controlling productivity, energy pathways, and biota. Rivers and their floodplains should be considered ecologically as a single entity as they are inseparable with respect to the water, sediment, and carbon budgets. This scholarly writing also discloses scientific background in planning a restoration strategy for the free-flowing stretch of the Danube river.

Orthographic Documentation
Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. “Climate Change in Germany.” ProQuest – CSA Illumina. www.csa.com/discoveryguides/models/images/elib1.jpg (accessed September 8, 2013).

Shows how Germany is going to face severe weather in the future, and that there is a need to address this issue through urban planning/social infrastructure. It also shows that severe flooding can be followed by summer droughts, which poses a conflict between conserving water and directing water flow elsewhere.

Weigel, Armin. An Aerial View of the Flooded Danube River in Deggendorf, Germany, on Friday. June 7, 2013. Http://www.npr.org/, Germany.

This photograph depicts the aftermath of the Danube flood. The photograph can be seen as a potential figure ground diagram to show how much the flood affected the areas of impact; essentially a before and after diagram.

Video and Audio
The Nature Conservancy. “Getting More from Dams and Floodplain.” YouTube. http://youtu.be/nu9J56MYUlk (accessed September 8, 2013).

Great explanation of technical terms and processes regarding dams and how river flooding can be turned into a economical process. Especially interesting is how the formation of a dam can contribute to the economy and feed downstream communities.

YouTube. Directed by NTDTV. YouTube. June 07, 2013. Accessed September 08, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E45SAmMljA.

At the beginning of the video the narrator states that the water levels reached nearly 27 feet in Slovakia. One of Slovakia’s main ports was brought to a halt and some tourist boats were left stranded on the river. This flood also brought most ground transportation to a standstill.

Essay Sources
Amsen, Eva . “Science Tourist: Water Engineering Part 1 – Cruquius Museum and Amsterdam Ordnance Datum.” The Finch and Pea. http://thefinchandpea.com/2013/02/26/science-tourist-water-engineering-part-1-cruquius-museum-and-amsterdam-ordnance-datum/ (accessed September 23, 2013).

This blog post written by a native of Haarlemmermeer explains in detail how the city came to be.

Bradley, Matt. “Dutch design lets homes float on the floodwaters .” The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/1026/p13s02-lihc.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

This article analyzes the how amphibious houses are changing the Dutch landscape. It has some interesting quotes from the architect’s spokesman, and also has interesting statistics linked to the development of amphibious real estate.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “North Sea flood,” accessed September 22, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1484998/North-Sea-flood.

Gives statistics about the North Sea flood.

Inquirer News. “Climate and land use: Europe’s floods raise questions.” Inquirer News. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/421263/climate-and-land-use-europes-floods-raise-questions (accessed September 14, 2013).

According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a low-pressure system that dumped the rain was locked into place by a disturbance with a global wind pattern. The article then elaborates on air activity around mid-latitudes and the temperature difference between the Artic and southerly latitudes. Follow the descriptions the author presents a theory as to how these components led to the severe flooding.

Lawson, Mark. “Flood Prevention in Germany – What Now?.” FloodList. http://floodlist.com/europe/flood-prevention-germany (accessed September 15, 2013).

This article discusses various components and suggestions that must be taken into strong consideration when creating floor prevention systems.

Sky News. “Europe Floods: Danube Reaches Highest Level.” Sky News . http://news.sky.com/story/1101637/europe-floods-danube-reaches-highest-level (accessed September 14, 2013).

This article elaborates on the flood in Germany and its horrific aftermath. The cost of damage is an estimated tens of billions of euros. Chancellor Angela Merkel planned a crisis meeting with state premiers to creating a bill in response to the flood.

Spiegel Online. “Flood Damage Could Surpass 2002 Disaster in Germany.” Spiegel Online. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/flood-damage-could-surpass-2002-disaster-in-germany-a-905167.html (accessed September 14, 2013).

This is another article that elaborates on the details of the historic flood and its long term repercussions.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Dutch Historical Ecology: Industrial Revolution.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://www.unc.edu/~devries/papers/Class_papers/Dutch_Historical_Ecology/he_indrev.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

This paper talks about how the Industrial revolution contributed to the shaping of Dutch landscape. It also includes useful diagrams of dikes, including measurements.

USA Today. “Wild weather has happened before, will again.” USA TODAY. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/weather/news/2002/2002-08-18-wildweather.htm (accessed September 15, 2013).

This article dates back to August 2002 when Germany experienced a severe flood, but not one that was as severe as the 2013 flood. Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate monitoring at the government’s National Climate Data Center in Asheville, NC, stated that “We’ve had these type of events in the past. We’re going to have them in the future.”

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