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Climate change exacerbates deadly floods in Libya and worldwide

The city of Derna, Libya on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Floods from extreme rain killed thousands of people and washed entire neighborhoods into the sea.
Muhammad J. Elalwany
The city of Derna, Libya on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Floods from extreme rain killed thousands of people and washed entire neighborhoods into the sea.

Updated September 19, 2023 at 9:12 AM ET

Catastrophic floods in eastern Libya killed at least 3,958 people, according to the United Nations. The disaster comes after a string of deadly floods around the world this month, from China to Brazil to Greece. In every case, extremely heavy rain was to blame.

The enormous loss of life on multiple continents reinforces the profound danger posed by climate-driven rain storms, and the need for better warning systems and infrastructure to protect the most vulnerable populations.

Climate change makes heavy rain more common, even in arid places where the total amount of precipitation is small. That's because a hotter atmosphere can hold more moisture. Everyday rainstorms, as well as bigger storms such as hurricanes, are increasingly dangerous as a result.

Human-caused warming made the extreme rainfall in Libya 50 times more likely to happen, according to a rapid analysis done by World Weather Attribution, a team of international climate scientists. It was also up to 50 percent more intense, compared to a climate without the added greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. The magnitude of the storm was outside the bounds of historical weather records, which means the study's findings have more uncertainty about how strong a role climate change played.

In Libya, a storm called Daniel swept in from the Mediterranean and resulted in a jaw-dropping 16 inches of rain in just 24 hours, according to the World Meteorological Organization. That is far too much water for the ground to absorb, especially in an arid climate where the soil is dry and is less able to suck up water quickly.

The massive amount of rain caused widespread flash flooding, and overwhelmed at least one dam near the coastal city of Derna. That unleashed torrents of water powerful enough to sweep away entire neighborhoods.

While it was clear to global meteorologists that the storm was powerful and was headed for the Libyan coast, it's not clear that residents of Derna were warned about the severity of the potential flooding. Libya is governed by two rival governments, and years of war means dams and other infrastructure haven't been well-maintained.

Before it got to Libya, the storm called Daniel also devastated Greece and Turkey with enormous amounts of rain. Some parts of Greece received more than two feet of rain in a three hour period last week, according to local authorities. The World Weather Attribution study found that climate change could have made rainfall there up to 40 percent more intense and the region now has a 10 percent chance of experiencing a similar storm every year

In Hong Kong, a record-breaking six inches of rain fell in one day. That caused flash flooding in the dense, hilly city, carrying away cars and flooding underground rail stations. In Brazil, flooding from a cyclone killed more than 20 people and left a swath of southern Brazil underwater.

Cities around the world are scrambling to upgrade their infrastructure to handle increasingly common deluges. Even in the United States, much of the infrastructure is designed for the climate of the past with some cities still using outdated data that doesn't reflect how storms are getting worse.

The disasters in the last two weeks also underscore the vulnerability to climate change of people who are not wealthy or who live in places that are at war. While extreme rain has caused floods around the world recently, the death toll is significantly higher in places where there isn't money or political will to maintain infrastructure and adequate weather warning systems.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.