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Satellite Images Reveal Impact of European Floods

Towns in multiple countries have been devastated. We used radar technology to look through the clouds at the damage below.

Oh my god! The flooding in Western Europe is a catastrophe of historic proportions. Satellite images are often one of the best ways to grasp the scale of natural disasters, but when we tried looking at it from above, all these images showed where clouds, clouds and more clouds. So we tapped to Finland based company called ICEYE. Their radar imaging technology can see through clouds to capture in real time the magnitude and nature of the flooding on the ground. This is Erftstadt in Germany, one of the town’s most heavily affected by the flooding. This radar image shows the floodwater as black masses here. One key detail is a field on the edge of this neighborhood on July 15. It is flooded. Next to it is a quarry. A second image taken 24 hours later reveals that the walls of the quarry have collapsed. The resulting landslide has swallowed houses, cars and roads. Across the border in the Netherlands. This image shows the city of Maastricht. There is flooding near the town center and north of the city close to the airport. A drone captured the scene on the ground. Here are government buildings. This used to be a harbor. And this an RV park. With some European villages still cut off by the flooding, radar, technology could help gauge the waters impact in remote areas and guide rescue efforts. Hundreds are still missing and death tolls are expected to continue to rise as emergency workers make their way through the wreckage.

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Towns in multiple countries have been devastated. We used radar technology to look through the clouds at the damage below.CreditCredit…Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As waters receded on Saturday, Germans in the country’s west surveyed scenes of destruction, grieved over a rising death toll and confronted questions about how the country’s flood control systems had been so quickly overwhelmed by one of the most extreme rainfalls on record.

The death toll in Germany climbed to at least 143 on Saturday, while the toll across the border in Belgium stood at 24, the authorities there said. The count rose most sharply in Germany’s Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate State, where the police said that more than 90 people had died and the authorities feared that the number could yet grow.

The authorities in Germany said that 600 people had been injured. Hundreds have been reported as missing, but officials have struggled to offer precise estimates: Electricity and telephone services remain inaccessible in parts of Germany, and some roads are still impassable. In Belgium, police officers took to knocking on doors in an effort to confirm the whereabouts of vulnerable residents.

Still, with floodwaters receding across parts of the region, the scale of the damage seemed certain to become clearer. Firefighters and soldiers began the daunting task of clearing debris, unclogging roads and assessing damaged buildings.

Officials said they expected to find additional victims.

Extreme downpours like the ones that hit Germany are one of the most visible signs that the climate is changing as a result of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, generating more rainfall.

Floods of this size have not been seen in 500 or even 1,000 years, according to meteorologists and German officials.

Rhineland-Palatinate was one of the two hardest-hit German states in the west, along with North Rhine-Westphalia. The Rhine River flows through the two regions, and the rain fell so rapidly that it engorged even small streams and tributaries not typically considered flood threats.




Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was expected to travel on Saturday to the town of Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne, where the flooding destroyed homes. Chancellor Angela Merkel planned to travel on Sunday to the town of Stuhr in Rhineland-Palatinate, which was badly hit, even as all of its 700 residents managed to survive.

Days before roiling waters tore through western Germany, a European weather agency had issued an extreme flood warning, as models showed that storms would send rivers surging to levels that had not been seen in hundreds of years.

The warnings, however, did little good.

Though Germany’s flood warning system, a network of sensors that measure river levels, functioned as it was supposed to, state and local officials said the amount of rain was unlike anything they had ever seen, causing even small streams and rivers to flood their banks.

Survivors and officials said many areas were caught unprepared as normally placid brooks and streams turned into torrents that swept away cars, houses and bridges. About 15,000 police officers, soldiers and emergency service workers have been deployed in Germany to help with the search and rescue.

Dr. Linda Speight, a hydrometeorologist at the University of Reading in Britain who studies how flooding occurs, blamed poor communication about the high risk posed by the flooding as contributing to the significant loss of life. “There should not have been so many deaths from this event,” she said.

There were scenes of devastation from all around Western Europe, the floods having caused damage from Switzerland to the Netherlands.

On Saturday in Belgium, the country’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, and the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, visited towns ravaged by the waters.

But the worst devastation was in Germany. And despite being in the middle of an election campaign, German politicians made a point of avoiding statements that could be seen as politicizing a calamity.

Still, the natural disaster has the potential to reshape the elections scheduled for Sept. 26. Armin Laschet, the conservative leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, who is vying to succeed Ms. Merkel, called the floods a “catastrophe of historic scale” and vowed, “We have to make the state more climate-proof.”

A flooded street on Saturday in Ophoven, a district of Wassenberg in Germany.
Credit…Thomas Banneyer/picture alliance, via Getty Images

Even as some Germans managed to return to their homes on Saturday amid the receding floodwaters, the danger for others had not yet passed.

In Wassenberg, a town in western Germany near the Dutch border, officials had ordered roughly 700 people to evacuate their homes on Friday night after a nearby dam broke, town officials said on Saturday.

The extent of any damage was not immediately clear.

The evacuations were precipitated by the breach of a dam on the Roer river, a tributary of the Rhine, which passes through the western regions hardest hit by the flooding.

In other towns nearby, residents were gradually making their way back home and for the first time since floodwaters rushed in earlier this week, reckoning with what had been ruined: books, heirlooms and century-old family businesses.

Volunteers joined the firefighters and soldiers picking through damaged buildings, rolling wheelbarrows full of dirt and debris from people’s cellars.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on a visit to Washington this week.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Usually a national leader faced with floods as severe as those in Germany would be expected to break off whatever she was doing and rush to the crisis area.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany completed an official visit to Washington that ended Friday, and she was not expected to visit the flood zone until Sunday, long after most other German political leaders had come and gone. (Saturday was also her 67th birthday.)

Ms. Merkel did express her sympathy to the victims from Washington, saying during an appearance with President Biden on Thursday, “My heart goes out to all of those who, in this catastrophe, lost their loved ones or who are still worrying about the fate of people still missing.”

And hours after touching down in Germany on Friday morning, Ms. Merkel took part in a crisis meeting with leaders of the state of Rhineland Palatinate, where many of the hardest-hit communities are. She also spoke by telephone with Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine Westphalia, which also suffered major devastation and loss of life.

Mr. Laschet — who, like Ms. Merkel, is a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party — is the party’s candidate to succeed her after the country holds elections in September.

So far Ms. Merkel has not faced major criticism for taking several days to see the damage for herself. She has never been one for political theater, and does not need to worry about opinion polls because she is stepping down from politics after the elections.

Germans also seemed to understand the importance of her trip to Washington — probably her last as chancellor — and meetings with Mr. Biden.

Germany is anxious to repair its relationship with the United States, a crucial ally and trading partner, after four tense years of dealing with President Donald J. Trump, who treated Germany like a rival and threatened to impose punitive tariffs on German cars. At a news conference with Mr. Biden on Thursday, Ms. Merkel seemed almost buoyant to be dealing with a new administration.

“We’re not only partners and allies, but we’re very close friends,” she said of Mr. Biden.

Addressing an underlying cause of Western Europe’s worst floods in centuries, the two leaders signed a pact to take “urgent action to address the climate crisis.”

“There is a dramatic increase in such unusual weather phenomena, and we have to contend with this,” Ms. Merkel said while standing alongside Mr. Biden.

The bridge over the Ahr River in Müsch was destroyed in this week’s flooding.
Credit…Steven Erlanger/The New York Times

Müsch, a village of 220 people at the junction of the Ahr and Trierbach rivers, was clobbered by the flash floods that have inundated this part of Germany. Only one person has died, but Müsch on Friday evening was without electricity, running water or cellphone coverage.

Residents and their friends were trying to clean up their battered homes, cracked streets and ruined cars. Local firefighters, like Nils Rademacher, 21, were managing the traffic of bulldozers, small trucks and backhoes, while instructing drivers that roads farther into the river valley were blocked with trees or made impassable by fallen bridges.

“A lot of good cars crashed or got crushed,” said Maria Vazquez, who works in a nearby auto repair shop. “I work with cars, so that’s sad, but I just hope that all the people are OK.”

The water rose to flood the village in less than two hours on Wednesday, and came halfway up the houses, Ms. Vazquez said.

The bridge that spans the River Ahr washed away on Thursday night around 10 p.m., said Michael Stoffels, 32, whose own house was flooded by about 12 feet of water.

The riverbanks were scenes of devastation, with crushed cars and thick tree stumps, while many of the cobbled streets were covered with mud and debris. Truckloads of broken furniture, tree branches and chunks of stone were being driven slowly over downed power lines.

The yellow road sign that tells drivers that they have entered Müsch was pulled out of the ground, laying bent and nearly adrift in the Trierbach River.

Mr. Stoffels said that he had no warning from the government, but that he rushed home from the retail store he manages nearby when a neighbor called. He was lucky, he said, since he has storage on the ground level and his living area is above that. The children’s playground next to his home, along the Ahr, was shattered, as was the main village electrical station, even before the bridge washed away.

He and his brother, who traveled 100 miles to help, and his friends, all wearing boots and muddy clothes, were trying to clean up as best they could. It helped, he said, that Müsch, in the Ahrweiler District of Rhineland-Palatinate close to the border with North Rhine-Westphalia, is farming country.

“Nearly everyone has a small tractor or a bulldozer of some kind,’’ he said. And it was true — the local firefighters were there, but there was little government presence, residents said. On Thursday, Mr. Stoffels said, “a couple of soldiers came for a time and a policeman looked around.”

Not far away, larger villages and towns were devastated, and more than 1,000 people are reported missing.

Roger Lewentz, Rhineland-Palatinate’s interior minister, was unable to give an exact number of missing in his state.

“We do not yet know for sure whether some of them may be on vacation or simply unavailable. After all, the power and telephone connections are down in many affected locations,” he told Der Spiegel newsmagazine.

“There haven’t been floods like this here in 100 years,’’ said Sebastian Stich, 28, an office worker from nearby Barweiler who came to help his neighbors. “The bridges, the power, it’s all gone.’’

Huge cleanup efforts were underway after days of flooding inundated parts of Western Europe this week.

Part of the historic center of Prague was underwater in August 2002.
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The floods devastating Europe have killed scores of people, leaving at least 1,300 missing, uprooting families, causing massive financial damage and reducing homes and cars to the state of floating bath toys. But it is not the first time the continent has been buffeted by a deluge.

Here are some of the other major lethal floods and flooding caused by storms in recent years.

Credit…Dragan Karadarevic/European Pressphoto Agency

A 7-year-old boy dead after falling ill in a flooded home in Surrey. A kayaker drowned on a swollen Welsh river. A coastal railroad ripped up by waves in Cornwall.

In a matter of months in 2014, at least 5,000 houses in Britain were damaged in what was then seen as one of the rainiest seasons in nearly 250 years. While some blamed the flooding on the austerity measures of David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, others pointed to climate change.

In May of that same year, the heaviest rains and floods in 120 years hit Bosnia and Serbia, killing at least 33 people, forcing thousands out of their homes, and cutting off power in 100,000 households in Serbia, as several months’ worth of rainfall fell in a matter of days.

Credit…Armin Weigel/European Pressphoto Agency

Germany is no stranger to flooding.

In Bitterfeld, in eastern Germany, about 10,000 people were asked to leave their homes in June 2013 after a levee on the Mulde River burst, amid some of the worst flooding that some German regions had seen in centuries. More than 600 residents of Dresden were brought to safety as electricity and water services to the city’s affected center were cut off.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, now tested by the current flooding, showed her mettle at the time, touring three of the hardest-hit areas to wade through ankle-deep floodwaters and visit victims of the flood.

Credit…Philippe Huguen/Agence France-Presse

The storm was called Kyrill by German meteorologists, and it spurred unrelenting rain in Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The howling gale churned through the British Isles and Northern Europe, uprooting trees, shattering windows, flooding beaches and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights at airports from London to Frankfurt.

According to the European Environment Agency, Kyrill killed 46 people and resulted in overall losses worth 8 billion euros. At the time, it was one of the most damaging extreme weather episodes ever recorded in Europe.

The name Kyrill stemmed from a German practice of naming weather systems. Anyone may name one, for a fee, and three siblings had paid to name the system as a 65th birthday gift for their father, not realizing it would grow into a fierce storm.

Credit…Peter Schneider/Keystone, via Associated Press

Such was the deluge in Central and Southern Europe in 2005 that in the Alps, military helicopters were deployed to ferry in supplies, evacuate stranded tourists and even stranded cows in mountain pastures threatened by rising water.

The floods left dozens dead. In Romania, which was badly affected by the flooding, victims were drowned as torrents of water rushed into their homes. Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Switzerland were also buffeted by the flooding.

The scenes of devastation were visceral and shocking. The Aare River broke through the windows of a children’s clothes shop in Bern, leaving baby strollers and toys floating in muddy water. Much of the historic old city of Lucerne remained underwater.

Meanwhile, in southern Poland, rivers broke their banks and at least seven bridges collapsed.

Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 2002, some of the worst rains since 1890 pelted the Czech Republic, putting part of the historic center of Prague underwater and resulting in 50,000 residents being ordered to evacuate, as rivers swelled by near constant rain.

The death toll from the floods, which ravaged East and Central Europe, including Germany and Austria, and southern Russia, was more than 110. The flooding caused billions of dollars worth of damage.

The floods helped propel Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to re-election because of his management of the crisis.

In Austria, the Salzach River burst its banks south of Salzburg and threatened to inundate the city at the height of its famous summer festival, forcing the authorities to close most bridges and major roads.

Floodwaters rose in Hungary and Germany, and in northern Austria the authorities halted river traffic on parts of the Danube.

The Ahr river overran its banks in the village of Insul, Germany.
Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

Was the flooding caused by climate change?

Tying a single weather event to climate change requires extensive attribution analysis, and that takes time, but scientists know one thing for sure: Warmer air holds more moisture, and that makes it more likely that any given storm will produce more precipitation.

For every 1 Celsius degree of warming, air can hold 7 percent more moisture.

On average, the world has warmed by a little more than 1 degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 19th century, when societies began pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Any storm that comes along now has more moisture to work with,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. “That’s the straightforward connection to the increased frequency of heavy downpours.”

And although it is still a subject of debate, some scientists say climate change might be causing storms to linger longer.

Some studies suggest that rapid warming in the Arctic is affecting the jet stream. One consequence of that, said Hayley Fowler, a professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University in England, is that the river of wind is weakening and slowing down at certain times during the year, including summer. That, in turn, affects weather systems farther south.

“That means the storms have to move more slowly,” Dr. Fowler said. The storm that caused the flooding was practically stationary, she noted.

The combination of more moisture and a stalled storm system means that a lot of rain can fall over a given area.

Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, one of the primary scientists with World Weather Attribution, a group that quickly analyzes extreme weather events to see whether they were made more likely by climate change, said the group was discussing whether to study the German floods.

Beyond the speed of a weather system and its moisture content, there are many factors that affect flooding that can make an analysis difficult. Local topography has to be taken into account, as that can affect how much runoff gets into which rivers.

Human impacts can complicate the analysis even further. Development near rivers can make runoff worse by reducing the amount of open land that can absorb rain. And infrastructure built to cope with heavy runoff and rising rivers may be under-designed and inadequate.

Watching the high water in Roermond, the Netherlands, on Friday.
Credit…Vincent Jannink/EPA, via Shutterstock

While some development in cities and elsewhere can make flooding worse, other projects can reduce flooding. That appears to have been the case in the Netherlands, which was not as severely affected as neighboring Germany by this week’s storm.

After several major floods on the Meuse River in the 1990s, the Dutch government began a program called Room for the River to reduce flooding, said Nathalie Asselman, who advises the government and other clients on flood risk.

The work involved lowering and widening river beds, lowering flood plains and excavating side channels.

“The aim of these measures is to lower flood levels,” she said.

Taming water in the Netherlands, a waterlogged country, has been a matter of survival for centuries, and the imperative to keep levels under control is inextricably bound up with Dutch identity. Much of the country sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Climate change has also exacerbated the twin threats of storms and rising tides.

While a dike near the Meuse in southern Netherlands suffered a breach that caused some flooding until it was repaired on Friday, the measures appear to have worked.

The breach, in the dike along the Juliana Canal in the southern Netherlands, was closed by the Dutch military by dumping hundreds of sandbags into the growing hole. Hours before, thousands had been told to evacuate after the dike was breached along the canal, a 22-mile waterway that regulates the Meuse River.

The river’s water level is at heights not witnessed since 1911, the Dutch national broadcaster NOS reported. Yet water levels on the Meuse were about a foot lower than would have been the case without the flood-reduction measures, Ms. Asselman said. That meant that smaller tributaries backed up less where they met the Meuse, producing less flooding.

“If we wouldn’t have implemented these measures, then the situation would have been worse,” she said. “Both on the main river and the tributaries.”

Oliver Henry, a firefighter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after helping extinguish a small fire in Mattawa, Wash., last month.
Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

An increasingly hot, dry and deadly summer has gripped much of the Western United States, with heat claiming lives in the Pacific Northwest and Canada in record numbers, and a deepening drought threatening water supplies — all of which is setting the stage for another potentially catastrophic fire season in California and neighboring states.

A fourth major heat wave was forecast to roast parts of the region again this weekend. It comes two weeks after a record-shattering spate of high temperatures — which scientists said would been virtually impossible without climate change — killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada.

A week ago, Death Valley hit a 130-degree high, matching a reading from last year that may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on earth. Also this past weekend, Las Vegas tied its record high, 117 degrees, and Grand Junction, Colo., topped its previous record, hitting 107 degrees.

At least 67 weather stations from Washington State through New Mexico have recorded their hottest temperatures ever this summer, the National Weather Service said this week. Those records stretched back at least 75 years.

The heat helped drive the rapid growth of a wildfire in southern Oregon, known as the Bootleg Fire, that has burned more than 240,000 acres — about a third the size of Rhode Island, America’s smallest state. The fire, the largest of dozens across the West, has destroyed about two dozen homes, threatens 1,900 more and has set off a wave of evacuations.

The fire also burned across a power line corridor that serves as a major contributor to the electrical grid in California, where officials have issued warnings this week asking residents to conserve power by turning up their thermostats and turning off appliances, or risk rolling blackouts.

One part of the West saw some relief from the crushing heat this week, as monsoon rains fell on the Southwest, including New Mexico and Arizona. But the result was yet another disaster: flash flooding that left some city streets in Arizona awash in muddy water and propelled a torrent of water through part of the Grand Canyon, washing away a camp where about 30 people on a rafting trip were spending the night, killing one.

As the Earth warms from climate change, heat waves are becoming hotter and more frequent. “And as bad as it might seem today,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times, “this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”