Winds and waves batter the coast as Ophelia hits the County Clare town of Lahinch.
Winds batter the coast as Ophelia hits the County Clare town of Lahinch. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Europe’s cities are unprepared to deal with storms such as ex-hurricane Ophelia. That’s got to change.

As ex-hurricane Ophelia batters Ireland today with wind gusts up to 176 kilometers per hour at Fastnet Rock, Europe contemplates a future of previously unimagined super-storms. Met Éireann, Ireland’s national weather service, issued red alerts, its highest warning, across the entire country, causing schools to shut and transportation to stop as life ground to a halt. Power outages left a reported 120,000 people in the dark, according to the public utility provider ESB Networks.

“We’re dealing with something quite unprecedented here,” said one of the agency’s meteorologists, Joanna Donnelly, on Ireland’s public television station, RTE.

Met Éireann and the country’s National Emergency Coordination Group, which manages disasters for the republic, tweeted precautions, including advising residents to make Monday, October 16 a “no-bike day.”

The agency also retweeted evidence of flooding:

It’s not the first time severe storms have hit the republic. Although hurricane-force storms have reached Europe before, only 10 extratropical storms similar to Ophelia hit within 200 miles (322 kilometers) of Ireland between 1851 and 2010. Remnants of stronger storms have hit the U.K. several times in 20 years, but Ophelia is unusual “in that it has developed so far east,” Met Éireann meteorologist Deirdre Lowe told the Irish Times. The country’s National Emergency Coordination Group, which manages disasters for the republic, said this is the worst storm to hit the country in 50 years. The last comparable storm in Ireland was Hurricane Debbie in 1961, in which 18 people died.

Since these storms are relatively rare, cities along Europe’s shores are often unprepared to respond to them. Figuring out how to do so will be increasingly crucial: Reindert Haarsma, a senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, concluded in a 2013 paper that more storms will potentially ravage the continent. Using a high resolution climate model—European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, which correctly predicted America’s Hurricane Sandy—Haarsma and his colleagues modeled an experiment showing that more hurricanes or super-storms would reach Europe due to warmer sea surface temperatures.

Typically, hurricanes have petered out over the North Atlantic’s colder waters—but a rise in the ocean’s temperature has been well-documented since the 1970s, with researchers from America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finding sea surface temperatures rose an average of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit annually from 1901 through 2015.“We anticipate an increase in severe storms of predominantly tropical origin reaching western Europe as part of 21st-century global warming,” wrote Haarsma.

Now Europe’s climate scientists are trying to understand future storms and manage their impacts. To that end, the European Commission’s office has funded numerous projects through its Horizon 2020 program to track and measure these patterns. Some examples include Applicate, which monitors climate changes in the Arctic, Crescendo Project, which compares seven global monitoring programs, and ExMeCy, which tracks cyclones and “medicanes,” a cyclone with hurricane-like characteristics in the Mediterranean. The first stage of ExMeCy’s research showed that in an 11-year period, 500 cyclones were responsible for about 40 percent of the rain in the Mediterranean. In the second stage, Emmanouil Flaounas, an associate researcher at the National Observatory of Athens, is studying what atmospheric process produces more rainfall—or drought—through cyclones in the region. A tip in either direction can cause mass consequences throughout the area.

“We first have to analyze past cyclones to better understand what will happen in the future,” says Flaounas. “And then we will have to adapt.”

One of the larger projects, PRIMAVERA, coordinates the efforts of 13 different global climate-change models throughout Europe to further a complete picture of future weather events. Participating institutions throughout Europe, including the U.K. Met Office, European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, U.K.’s Reading University, and Barcelona’s Supercomputing center, simultaneously run climate-change stimulations using the same data. Most global models run from a view of 100 kilometers above Earth, giving the models a grainy appearance. This initiative operates at a resolution of 25 kilometers, which allows scientists to study complex climate patterns more precisely. This is a new level of supercomputing not previously available, notes Paul Van der Linden, a climate scientist at United Kingdom’s Metrological Office and lead scientist on the project. The project has been running for two years of its four-year grant, and will present its first data chunk in December at its general assembly in Bologna, Italy.

“One of the things we are studying [are] storm tracks. Is there a change in frequency, intensity, or location of storms, and how does Europe prepare?” says Van der Linden. “Severe weather will impact everyone in a different way, and we can’t know what all the variables are. There are the obvious ones like damage to buildings from windstorms and flooding, but we also are looking at consequences for health, transport, and energy.” Scientists at PRIMAVERA will also be informing agriculture, hydrology, and insurance experts about way to mitigate future damage from severe weather events.

Van der Linden stresses, “We need the best scientific climate research to inform experts, so they can plan to avoid future disasters. It can’t just be about Ophelia. We have to be speaking about the next storms, too.”

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