The deadly storm that hit Libya on 10 September 2023 was made much more likely and worse by human-caused climate change.
According to the World Weather Attribution analysis, the extreme event wrought by storm Daniel in Libya has become up to 50 times more likely and up to 50% more intense due to a 1.2°C temperature rise. A warming climate has also increased rainfall intensity by around 10%. This extreme weather event that hit Northern Libya is expected to occur every 300-600 years.
World Weather Attribution initiative is a collaboration among scientists that uses weather observations and climate models to understand how climate change influences the intensity and likelihood of extreme weather events. The studies also assess the role of vulnerability and exposure in the extent of the impacts.
Daniel had ravaged central Greece and parts of Bulgaria and Turkey between 4-7 September before its descent in Libya. Scientist at the WWA finds that human-induced climate change made extreme events such as this one up to 10 times more likely and up to 40% more intense in the region.
According to AP news, heavy rains in Greece inundated at least 700 square kilometres of prime farmlands, destroying their crops. The floods also damaged hundreds of buildings, destroyed the country’s railway backbone, and killed tens of thousands of the country’s livestock. The disaster also came in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
As the storm crossed over the Mediterranean to Libya, it gained more energy from sea temperatures that were two to three degrees warmer than the September average.
Heavy rains from the storm had breached the two dams above Derna, Libya’s north-eastern port city, sending a deluge that swept away entire neighbourhoods. The amount of rain that fell in a single day was estimated at 400mm, significantly exceeding the area’s average September rainfall of only 1.5mm.
The analysis by the World Weather Attribution also acknowledged that the impacts of the storm in Greece and Libya were exacerbated by other factors, such as deforestation and urbanisation, that changed the landscapes in these countries.
Conflicts in Libya have also led them to slack off in maintaining its two ageing dams, causing them to burst easily. The Al-Bildad and Abu Mansour dams were built in the 1970s and may not have been designed to withstand a 1-in-300 to 600-year rainfall event.
According to government estimates, death tolls are between 4,000 and 11,000 in Libya and 28 in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.
The WWA scientists note that early warning systems could have reduced these catastrophic impacts. “Even still, catastrophic dam failures and their impacts can be limited through risk reduction protocols that include real-time monitoring of forecasts, water volumes, and warning systems that alert those downstream of possible failures and the need to evacuate.”
Although the WWA does not have weather station data in Libya and had to rely on data from satellite readings, they are confident of climate change’s fingerprints in this catastrophic storm based on the strong evidence that a warming climate creates heavier rainfall and increases the intensity of weather systems.
For instance, summer this year in Greece had seen extreme heatwaves and fires, including the biggest fire recorded in the European Union, followed by a destructive Storm Daniel.
The catastrophic floods in Libya are a stark reminder that climate change is posing a growing threat around the world, especially in vulnerable countries and the need for urgent actions from the government through a combination of climate adaptation, including building resilient infrastructure, mitigation, and scientific research.
“This disaster also points to the challenge of needing to design and maintain infrastructure for not just the climate of the present or the past but also the future. In Libya, this means taking into account the long-term decline in average rainfall, and at the same time, the increase in extreme rainfall like this heavy rainfall event; a challenging prospect, especially for a country plagued by crises”, the WWA notes.
Interplay of climate change-exacerbated rainfall, exposure and vulnerability led to widespread impacts in the Mediterranean region. (2023, September 19). World Weather Attribution. Retrieved from https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/interplay-of-climate-change-exacerbated-rainfall-exposure-and-vulnerability-led-to-widespread-impacts-in-the-mediterranean-region/
Webber, T. (2023, September 20). Climate change made storm that devastated Libya far more likely and intense, scientists say. AP News. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/climate-change-libya-flood-study-3eda9e77840d8bbd7058e494cc0a2231
Rowlatt, J. (2023, September 20). Climate change played major role in Libya floods. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-66854670