Current European flood-rich period exceptional compared with past 500 years

Abstract

There are concerns that recent climate change is altering the frequency and magnitude of river floods in an unprecedented way1. Historical studies have identified flood-rich periods in the past half millennium in various regions of Europe2. However, because of the low temporal resolution of existing datasets and the relatively low number of series, it has remained unclear whether Europe is currently in a flood-rich period from a long-term perspective. Here we analyse how recent decades compare with the flood history of Europe, using a new database composed of more than 100 high-resolution (sub-annual) historical flood series based on documentary evidence covering all major regions of Europe. We show that the past three decades were among the most flood-rich periods in Europe in the past 500 years, and that this period differs from other flood-rich periods in terms of its extent, air temperatures and flood seasonality. We identified nine flood-rich periods and associated regions. Among the periods richest in floods are 1560–1580 (western and central Europe), 1760–1800 (most of Europe), 1840–1870 (western and southern Europe) and 1990–2016 (western and central Europe). In most parts of Europe, previous flood-rich periods occurred during cooler-than-usual phases, but the current flood-rich period has been much warmer. Flood seasonality is also more pronounced in the recent period. For example, during previous flood and interflood periods, 41 per cent and 42 per cent of central European floods occurred in summer, respectively, compared with 55 per cent of floods in the recent period. The exceptional nature of the present-day flood-rich period calls for process-based tools for flood-risk assessment that capture the physical mechanisms involved, and management strategies that can incorporate the recent changes in risk.

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Fig. 1: Flood-rich periods in Europe in the past 500 years.
Fig. 2: Flood intensities and flood-rich periods.
Fig. 3: Flood-rich periods in Europe.
Fig. 4: Anomalies of annual air temperatures from their 1961–1990 mean within and outside flood-rich periods in central Europe.
Fig. 5: Seasonality of floods within and outside flood-rich periods in central Europe.

Data availability

The flood index data that were used in this paper and an extended list of references are available at https://github.com/tuwhydro/500yrfloods. The air temperature data are available at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo-search/study/9970

Code availability

The data analysis was performed in R using the supporting package fields for the thin plate spline interpolation (function fastTps). The code used can be downloaded from https://github.com/tuwhydro/500yrfloods.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the ERC Advanced Grant ‘FloodChange’ project (no. 291152), the Horizon 2020 ETN ‘System Risk’ project (no. 676027), the DFG project FOR 2416, the FWF projects I 3174 and W1219-N22, the Spanish Agency of Science and FEDER/UE projects CGL2016-75475/R, CGL2017-86839-C3-1-R, CGL2016-75996-R and CTM2017-83655-C2-2-R, the ICREA Academia programme, and project CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000797, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic. We acknowledge all flood data providers listed in Extended Data Table 1 and thank J. Lajus for pointing us to the published Neva series.

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Authors

Contributions

G. Blöschl, A.K. and A.V. designed the study and wrote the first draft of the paper. G. Blöschl initiated the study and provided guidance for the analyses. A.K. collated the database with the help of most of the co-authors and provided guidance for the analyses. A.V. performed all quantitative analyses of the flood data. M. Barriendos, O.B., R.B., D. Coeur, G.D., A.K., M.C.L., N.M., D.R., L.R., P.S.-F., I.A., M. Bělínová, G. Benito, C.B., D. Camuffo, R.D., L.E., S.E., J.C.G., R.G., D. Limanówka, A. P., H.P., F.S.R., C.R., J.S., L.S., L.P.S., W.H.J.T. and O.W. developed historical river flood series. J.H., K.H., M.H., J.K., D. Lun, J.P. and P.V. advised on the data analysis. D. Cornel and J.W. rendered Fig. 1 and the Supplementary Video. All authors interpreted results, and contributed to framing and revising the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Günter Blöschl.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks Anouk Bomers, Francis Ludlow, Olivier Payrastre and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Locations of the flood series.

Series indicated by red circles are used for the interpolation of the flood intensities (names as in Extended Data Table 1 and Extended Data Fig. 2). Series indicated by orange circles are supplementary and only used for the seasonality analysis. Thick grey lines indicate regions used in the analysis.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Duration, representativeness index and bias index of the flood data series.

The greyscale refers to the representativeness index that reflects the degree of data representativeness in a regional context (light grey, low representativeness (u = 1); dark grey, average representativeness (u = 2); black, high representativeness (u = 3)). The line width refers to the bias index that reflects the completeness of the source material in a historical context (no line, no data; thin line, period with possibly missing data; average line, average; thick line, period with overly dense data).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Raw data of flood intensities.

Great (class 2) and extraordinary (class 3) floods are marked by orange and red dots, respectively. Thin lines show the interpolated flood intensities. Flood-rich periods are shown as light grey areas.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Anomalies of annual air temperatures.

The anomalies are taken from the 1961–1990 mean of annual air temperatures within and outside flood-rich periods in southern Europe (top) and western Europe (bottom). a, c, Time series of air temperature anomalies (grey line) and their averages and 90% confidence bounds (black lines), and flood-rich periods indicated by colour bars. b, d, Relationship between mean temperature anomalies in flood-rich periods and those of the intervals in between. Error bars show 90% confidence bounds. Colours correspond to those of the flood-rich periods in a, c.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Flood seasonality.

Seasonality of floods is shown within and outside flood-rich periods in southern Europe (top) and western Europe (bottom). a, c, Time series of smoothed frequency of floods in four seasons (green lines, spring; red, summer; brown, autumn; blue, winter) and flood-rich periods indicated by colour bars. b, d, Frequency of floods in four seasons. Left bars, interflood periods; middle bars, flood-rich periods of the past; right bars, flood-rich period IX (1990–2016). Error bars show 90% confidence bounds.

Extended Data Table 1 Flood series, data contributors and countries, involved in the present study
Extended Data Table 2 Flood-rich periods in Europe in the past 500 years

Supplementary information

Supplementary Video 1

Dynamic visualisation of the flood-rich periods in Europe in the past 500 years and their relationship to air temperature.

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Blöschl, G., Kiss, A., Viglione, A. et al. Current European flood-rich period exceptional compared with past 500 years. Nature 583, 560–566 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2478-3

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