As the Danube River reaches record high levels and thousands flee Europe's worst flooding in more than a decade, scientists already are predicting that this deluge may be a portent of things to come.
In Passau, in southern Germany at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, floodwaters reached 42.3 feet over the last few days. The previous record was in 1501, when levels reached 40 feet.
Extreme weather of the kind ravaging the Danube and Elbe rivers in Central Europe is expected to become more frequent. And while experts note that individual events can't be attributed to climate change, they say Europe needs to start preparing for even worse floods.
"The E.U. needs a comprehensive strategy including flood prevention and warning systems," said Gregor Vulturius, a research associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute. "They need to increase public awareness and carry out risk mapping to ascertain where they should allocate resources."
Vulturius pointed out that flooding is influenced by social and economic conditions as well as climate. Cities need to add a layer of preparedness, such as land-use restrictions in flood-prone areas, provisions for groundwater pumping and regular dredging in some areas to minimize silt and sand deposits on riverbeds following heavy rainfall.
Cities, he said, must ready public infrastructure not just for 100-year events -- which are now occurring every few years -- but also for 500-year events. At the same time, he noted, some parts of Europe, like Dresden and Saxony in Germany, have done significant work since the last major flooding in 2002, such as placement of channels on the Elbe River to cope with runoff from an extreme flood event. The E.U. price tag for mopping up after those floods was $16.5 billion.
According to Munich Re AG, the world's largest reinsurer, the cost to insurance underwriters of the 2002 flood was $3.4 billion. To date, Munich Re has been unable to estimate what the exact cost of the 2013 floods is likely to be.
"It is still too early to evaluate the current flood catastrophe and its related losses, especially because the floodwaters have yet to drain away," said Anette Lamberts, Munich Re's head of media relations. She added that it would likely be several weeks before the company could issue a reliable figure because, despite the fact that the rain has mostly stopped, the floodwaters have not yet reached their zenith in some areas.
Changing climate means heavy weather
In northern Germany, the water is expected to rise even further before the worst is over. The Danube's waters are predicted to peak today in Hungary's capital, Budapest, and are expected to reach 29.5 feet, some 10 inches higher than the river's previous record in 2006.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared a state of emergency. Thousands of volunteers worked overnight to reinforce the riverbanks, and an emergency evacuation facility capable of temporarily housing 15,000 people has been set on Budapest's fairground.
Cities will not be the only casualties. Germany's agricultural ministry estimated damages from the flooding to be in the range of $232.6 million.
The DBV, the German Farmers Association, estimates the total cost will be much higher in the neighborhood of $396.5 million. The association expects total area of farmland under water -- currently 370,658 acres -- to rise to 617,763 acres. It won't know the scope of the damage until the waters recede. These figures do not take into account the replacement cost of equipment, buildings and livestock. DBV President Joachim Rukwied announced the creation of a relief fund in conjunction with a charitable foundation to make up the shortfall.
Although scientists hesitate to draw a direct relationship between weather and climate, observation of weather patterns shows a definite correlation between extreme weather events and a warming climate.