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Floods in London are the latest sign big cities aren’t ready for climate change

Cars stranded in streets turned to rivers. Bus passengers rescued by raft. Train stations submerged, sparking travel chaos.

The now-familiar scenes of a city inundated by floods played out in London over the weekend, when heavy rainfall put parts of the UK capital underwater.
When two London hospitals turned non-emergency patients away after getting flooded over the weekend, it was a brutal reminder that even some of the world’s richest cities are dangerously unprepared for the kind of extreme weather that is becoming more common and more severe because of climate change.
Climate and infrastructure experts have been warning for years that London, like many other large cities, isn’t ready for climate change, with large parts of the city built on a flood plain and a Victorian drainage system that is unable to withstand this kind of intense rain.
A pedestrian crosses through deep water on a flooded road in London on July 25, 2021.
A pedestrian crosses through deep water on a flooded road in London on July 25, 2021.
“It’s deeply concerning that we’re seeing hospital emergency departments having to close because they flooded, something certainly needs to be done to make sure that critical infrastructure is not at risk,” said Liz Stephens, associate professor at the department of geography and environmental science at the University of Reading.
According to the Greater London Authority, 17% of London is facing either high or medium risk of flooding, with more than 1 million Londoners live in a flood plain.
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The city has built a giant flood defense system on the river Thames to protect itself from tidal flooding, but the barriers are of little help when it comes to flash flooding caused by sudden heavy rainfall — the sort that is becoming more common because of rising temperatures.
Images from Sunday showed Londoners taken by surprise, wandering through flooded streets. Some even attempting to drive away through the rising water, which officials warn against because of the high likelihood for automobiles to be swept away, or for the drivers to become trapped.
The London Fire Brigade said Monday it took over 1,000 emergency calls related to the flooding with crews rescuing people from cars and helping them flee their homes.
While these images of people not taking the risk seriously are concerning, Stephens said individuals were hardly to blame here.
‘Once in a thousand years’ rains devastated central China, but there is little talk of climate change
‘Once in a thousand years’ rains devastated central China, but there is little talk of climate change
“Our ability to map the risk of surface water flooding is not particularly good,” Stephens said. He noted UK’s surface water flood risk maps have not been improved significantly since 2013, even though more precise technology is available and despite the fact that numerous reports have been published that emphasize the increasing risk.
On top of that, the way flood risk is monitored and managed in the UK is extremely complicated, with different bodies responsible for different parts of the effort and no single body in charge.
The Met Office, the UK’s national weather service, issued weather warnings for heavy rainfall and thunderstorms on Sunday, but Stephens said these may not be immediately understood by people.
“I think there was an amber warning which tells you that that there could well be severe impacts, but the amber warning covered a very large area of southeast England,” said Stephens. “So really as an individual, what would you do with that kind of information. If you don’t know that your property is at risk of flooding, and you’ve got some very broad scale flood warning, or not even a flood warning, a warning of intense rainfall, then I don’t think we can be surprised if people are unprepared for it,” she said.
A man walks through a flooded part of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, on Thursday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man walks through a flooded part of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, on Thursday.
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A regional train sits in floodwaters at the local station in Kordel, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A regional train sits in floodwaters at the local station in Kordel, Germany.
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People use rafts to evacuate after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People use rafts to evacuate after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium.
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People look at a railway crossing that was destroyed by the flooding in Priorei, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People look at a railway crossing that was destroyed by the flooding in Priorei, Germany.
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Men walk by damaged homes in Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Men walk by damaged homes in Schuld, Germany.
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A man surveys what remains of his house in Schuld.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man surveys what remains of his house in Schuld.
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Water from the Ahr River flows past a damaged bridge in Schuld.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Water from the Ahr River flows past a damaged bridge in Schuld.
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Evacuees ride a bus in Valkenburg aan de Geul, Netherlands.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Evacuees ride a bus in Valkenburg aan de Geul, Netherlands.
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A car floats in the Meuse River during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, on Thursday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A car floats in the Meuse River during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, on Thursday.
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People walk on a damaged road in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People walk on a damaged road in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
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A resident uses a bucket to remove water from a house cellar in Hagen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A resident uses a bucket to remove water from a house cellar in Hagen, Germany.
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A man and woman stand on the stoop of their home as they look at floodwaters in Geulle, Netherlands.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man and woman stand on the stoop of their home as they look at floodwaters in Geulle, Netherlands.
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Houses are damaged by flooding in Insul, Germany, on Thursday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Houses are damaged by flooding in Insul, Germany, on Thursday.
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A man steps down a ladder in an attempt to cut his boat loose in the Meuse River in Liege, Belgium.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man steps down a ladder in an attempt to cut his boat loose in the Meuse River in Liege, Belgium.
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Caravans and campers are partially submerged in Roermond, Netherlands.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Caravans and campers are partially submerged in Roermond, Netherlands.
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A destroyed building is seen in a flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A destroyed building is seen in a flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
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People walk over floodwaters in Stansstad, Switzerland.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People walk over floodwaters in Stansstad, Switzerland.
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Cars are covered by debris in Hagen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Cars are covered by debris in Hagen, Germany.
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A flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
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Two brothers embrace Monday, July 19, in front of their parents’ home, which was destroyed by flooding in Altenahr, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Two brothers embrace Monday, July 19, in front of their parents’ home, which was destroyed by flooding in Altenahr, Germany.
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A damaged road buckles after flooding in Euskirchen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A damaged road buckles after flooding in Euskirchen, Germany.
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This aerial photo shows a bridge collapsed over the Ahr River in Germany’s Ahrweiler district on Sunday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
This aerial photo shows a bridge collapsed over the Ahr River in Germany’s Ahrweiler district on Sunday.
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Damage is seen Sunday in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Damage is seen Sunday in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
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Homes are damaged in Pepinster, Belgium, on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Homes are damaged in Pepinster, Belgium, on Saturday.
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A resident stands in floodwaters in Rochefort, Belgium, on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A resident stands in floodwaters in Rochefort, Belgium, on Saturday.
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Members of the German armed forces search for flood victims in Erftstadt, Germany, on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Members of the German armed forces search for flood victims in Erftstadt, Germany, on Saturday.
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A resident of Arcen, Netherlands, looks at the rising water of the Meuse River on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A resident of Arcen, Netherlands, looks at the rising water of the Meuse River on Saturday.
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Water flows over a square in front of a house in Bischofswiesen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Water flows over a square in front of a house in Bischofswiesen, Germany.
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A man stands in front of a destroyed house in Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man stands in front of a destroyed house in Schuld, Germany.
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A water level gauge shows rising waters in Arcen, Netherlands, on Saturday. Dutch officials ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people in the municipality of Venlo, as the Meuse was rising there faster than expected.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A water level gauge shows rising waters in Arcen, Netherlands, on Saturday. Dutch officials ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people in the municipality of Venlo, as the Meuse was rising there faster than expected.
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This aerial photo shows flooding in Erftstadt, Germany, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
This aerial photo shows flooding in Erftstadt, Germany, on Friday.
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A man brushes water and mud out of his flooded house in Ensival, Belgium, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man brushes water and mud out of his flooded house in Ensival, Belgium, on Friday.
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People collect debris in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People collect debris in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany.
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The Steinbach dam is seen after flooding near Euskirchen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
The Steinbach dam is seen after flooding near Euskirchen, Germany.
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Firefighters walk past a car that was damaged by flooding in Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Firefighters walk past a car that was damaged by flooding in Schuld, Germany.
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People lay sandbags in Roermond, Netherlands, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People lay sandbags in Roermond, Netherlands, on Friday.
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A woman sorts through clothing at a shelter in Liege, Belgium, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A woman sorts through clothing at a shelter in Liege, Belgium, on Friday.
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A woman walks up the stairs of her damaged house in Ensival, Belgium.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A woman walks up the stairs of her damaged house in Ensival, Belgium.
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A man walks through a flooded part of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, on Thursday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man walks through a flooded part of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, on Thursday.
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A regional train sits in floodwaters at the local station in Kordel, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A regional train sits in floodwaters at the local station in Kordel, Germany.
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People use rafts to evacuate after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People use rafts to evacuate after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium.
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People look at a railway crossing that was destroyed by the flooding in Priorei, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People look at a railway crossing that was destroyed by the flooding in Priorei, Germany.
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Men walk by damaged homes in Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Men walk by damaged homes in Schuld, Germany.
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A man surveys what remains of his house in Schuld.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man surveys what remains of his house in Schuld.
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Water from the Ahr River flows past a damaged bridge in Schuld.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Water from the Ahr River flows past a damaged bridge in Schuld.
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Evacuees ride a bus in Valkenburg aan de Geul, Netherlands.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Evacuees ride a bus in Valkenburg aan de Geul, Netherlands.
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A car floats in the Meuse River during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, on Thursday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A car floats in the Meuse River during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, on Thursday.
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People walk on a damaged road in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People walk on a damaged road in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
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A resident uses a bucket to remove water from a house cellar in Hagen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A resident uses a bucket to remove water from a house cellar in Hagen, Germany.
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A man and woman stand on the stoop of their home as they look at floodwaters in Geulle, Netherlands.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man and woman stand on the stoop of their home as they look at floodwaters in Geulle, Netherlands.
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Houses are damaged by flooding in Insul, Germany, on Thursday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Houses are damaged by flooding in Insul, Germany, on Thursday.
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A man steps down a ladder in an attempt to cut his boat loose in the Meuse River in Liege, Belgium.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man steps down a ladder in an attempt to cut his boat loose in the Meuse River in Liege, Belgium.
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Caravans and campers are partially submerged in Roermond, Netherlands.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Caravans and campers are partially submerged in Roermond, Netherlands.
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A destroyed building is seen in a flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A destroyed building is seen in a flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
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People walk over floodwaters in Stansstad, Switzerland.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People walk over floodwaters in Stansstad, Switzerland.
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Cars are covered by debris in Hagen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Cars are covered by debris in Hagen, Germany.
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A flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A flood-affected area of Schuld, Germany.
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Two brothers embrace Monday, July 19, in front of their parents’ home, which was destroyed by flooding in Altenahr, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Two brothers embrace Monday, July 19, in front of their parents’ home, which was destroyed by flooding in Altenahr, Germany.
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A damaged road buckles after flooding in Euskirchen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A damaged road buckles after flooding in Euskirchen, Germany.
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This aerial photo shows a bridge collapsed over the Ahr River in Germany’s Ahrweiler district on Sunday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
This aerial photo shows a bridge collapsed over the Ahr River in Germany’s Ahrweiler district on Sunday.
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Damage is seen Sunday in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Damage is seen Sunday in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany.
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Homes are damaged in Pepinster, Belgium, on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Homes are damaged in Pepinster, Belgium, on Saturday.
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A resident stands in floodwaters in Rochefort, Belgium, on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A resident stands in floodwaters in Rochefort, Belgium, on Saturday.
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Members of the German armed forces search for flood victims in Erftstadt, Germany, on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Members of the German armed forces search for flood victims in Erftstadt, Germany, on Saturday.
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A resident of Arcen, Netherlands, looks at the rising water of the Meuse River on Saturday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A resident of Arcen, Netherlands, looks at the rising water of the Meuse River on Saturday.
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Water flows over a square in front of a house in Bischofswiesen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Water flows over a square in front of a house in Bischofswiesen, Germany.
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A man stands in front of a destroyed house in Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man stands in front of a destroyed house in Schuld, Germany.
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A water level gauge shows rising waters in Arcen, Netherlands, on Saturday. Dutch officials ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people in the municipality of Venlo, as the Meuse was rising there faster than expected.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A water level gauge shows rising waters in Arcen, Netherlands, on Saturday. Dutch officials ordered the evacuation of 10,000 people in the municipality of Venlo, as the Meuse was rising there faster than expected.
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This aerial photo shows flooding in Erftstadt, Germany, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
This aerial photo shows flooding in Erftstadt, Germany, on Friday.
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A man brushes water and mud out of his flooded house in Ensival, Belgium, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A man brushes water and mud out of his flooded house in Ensival, Belgium, on Friday.
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People collect debris in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People collect debris in Bad Muenstereifel, Germany.
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The Steinbach dam is seen after flooding near Euskirchen, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
The Steinbach dam is seen after flooding near Euskirchen, Germany.
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Firefighters walk past a car that was damaged by flooding in Schuld, Germany.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
Firefighters walk past a car that was damaged by flooding in Schuld, Germany.
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People lay sandbags in Roermond, Netherlands, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
People lay sandbags in Roermond, Netherlands, on Friday.
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A woman sorts through clothing at a shelter in Liege, Belgium, on Friday.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A woman sorts through clothing at a shelter in Liege, Belgium, on Friday.
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A woman walks up the stairs of her damaged house in Ensival, Belgium.
Photos: Deadly flooding in western Europe
A woman walks up the stairs of her damaged house in Ensival, Belgium.
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A report into the impacts of climate change on the UK published last month by the government’s independent climate advisory group, the Climate Change Committee, warned the country was not ready, saying that “adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk.”
“The risk is always greater in the urban environment because we’ve got concreted surfaces, but we’re also relying on an old drainage infrastructure in London, we’re talking about Victorian drains,” Stephens said.
Images like those coming from London on Sunday are becoming worryingly familiar.
Just two weeks ago, devastating floods caused by heavy rains swept across large parts of western Europe, leaving more than 200 people dead and thousands homeless. On the other side of the world, much of China’s central Henan province was left devastated after record rains there last week, killing at least 58, cut off power and forced the relocation of more than 1 million people.
And while it is not possible to attribute a single event to climate change, heavy rains and floods are becoming more common. As the Earth’s atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, which can lead to unprecedented rainfall. It may be that the total average rainfall in an area doesn’t change, but extremes are amplified, which can mean longer dry periods or more intense storms. When heavy rain hits after prolonged drought, the soils are less able to absorb the water and the rain is more likely to result in flooding.
Deadly floods inundated parts of Europe, but the Netherlands avoided fatalities. Here’s why
Deadly floods inundated parts of Europe, but the Netherlands avoided fatalities. Here’s why
Urban areas are at higher risk of flash flooding because surfaces are covered with concrete, which means the ground cannot absorb any water. According to the European Environmental Agency, Paris, Thessaloniki, Bucharest and Barcelona among the cities with more than three quarters of their surface area “sealed,” meaning they are at higher risk of surface flooding.
On top of that, many European cities rely on very old infrastructure, and sewage systems cannot cope with heavier rainfall.
“Summer thunderstorms are not a new occurrence, but it is becoming ever clearer that the worsening impacts of flooding from intense rainfall are having devastating effects here in the UK and across Europe,” Jess Neumann, a hydrologist at the University of Reading, said in a comment to Science Media Center. “The severity and frequency of flooding is a stark warning that we are not prepared to deal with climate change.”

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