Historic flooding in Italy: What role has climate change played in the destruction?

© MIGUEL MEDINA, AFP/Getty Images A picture taken on October 29, 2018 shows the flooded St. Mark's Square during a high-water (Ac...

© MIGUEL MEDINA, AFP/Getty Images A picture taken on October 29, 2018 shows the flooded St. Mark's Square during a high-water (Acqua Alta) alert in Venice.

By Marina Pitofsky ,  USA TODAY

At least 11 people have died in Italy this week due to historic flooding throughout the country, officials said Tuesday.

In Venice, more than 70 percent of the city was inundated as water levels rose over five feet above normal. In addition to heavy rain, sea water was also pushed into the city by a powerful storm and exacerbated by high tides.

In fact, Venice saw its fourth-largest tides since at least 1936, according to the city's website.

The famous tile floor in Saint Mark's Cathedral was damaged as the basilica flooded for just the fifth time in nine centuries, Italian media reported.

How did such disaster reach Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site? 

A low-pressure system from northern Africa brought the wind and rain, according to AccuWeather forecaster Maura Kelly. 

"That low brings warm air into Italy, and since we’re getting into the cooler season, there was some cool air in the north of Italy, and that helps to produce those stronger thunderstorms," Kelly said.

In Venice, winds off of the Adriatic Sea also contributed to the destruction.

"That was helping to increase water levels in Venice on top of the flooding rainfall they were already seeing," Kelly said. "So, it's very devastating for the region."

© Andrea Merola, AP
A woman walks in a flooded street of Venice, Italy, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, as, according to city officials, 70 percent of the lagoon city has been flooded by waters rising more than 58 1/2 inches above sea level. Venice frequently floods when high winds push in water from the lagoon, but Monday's levels are exceptional.

Weather patterns have not been the only factor, according to Keya Chaterjee, executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network. Chatterjee noted that the storms in Italy followed other devastating weather events this year, including hurricanes Florence and Michael in the United States and Super Typhoon Yutu that hit Guam and the Philippines.

"What we're seeing is part of a trend," Chaterjee said. "It is happening as part of a climate that we have altered through the burning of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, it it totally consistent with what has been predicted for decades and decades at this point."

Venice's location on Italy's northeastern coast has already left it vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise from climate change. The average water height in Venice has increased nine inches since 1897. Forty percent of that is attributable to worldwide sea-level rise from melting polar ice, according to Weather Underground. 

"This is yet another time we're seeing the consequences," Chatterjee said. "I think for most people the signals are becoming quite clear that we need to have emergency action."

Ken Berlin, president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, said Venice's flooding shows climate change will continue to have significant effects worldwide.

"Events like this remind us that the victims of the climate crisis are our friends and neighbors – the shop owner whose store and stock is full of water, families whose homes have been destroyed by floods, fallen trees, or landslides, and innocent people who tragically lose their lives," Berlin said. "It’s clearer than ever that our leaders need to step up action to transition to a clean energy economy and stem the tide of unchecked climate change. Our world depends on it."

UNESCO has also expressed concerns about World Heritage sites, according to Mechtild Rossler, director of the World Heritage Center, especially in Venice and its enclosed lagoon.

"In Venice, we can see increased impacts which includes erosion of the historic fabric, and the whole international community has to act collectively to preserve these unique places for all of humankind,” Rossler said.

In order to avoid further extreme weather trends, including droughts, rising sea levels and deadly storms, countries need to collectively cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and completely cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a recent groundbreaking report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


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Historic flooding in Italy: What role has climate change played in the destruction?
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