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Central Europe: Researchers Say More Floods Likely in Central Europe

Two Danish meteorologists have created a mathematical model of weather patterns in Central Europe. Their findings, reported in a British-based scientific journal, indicate that the floods and droughts that have ravaged the region in the last few years are very likely to occur again.

Prague, 21 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Weather authorities called the waters that inundated Prague, other Czech cities and villages and parts of Germany, Poland, and Austria last year "a 100-year flood." That's defined as a flood whose severity is unlikely to be matched more than once in a century.

But now a pair of meteorologists from the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen are saying that changing weather conditions -- global warming, for instance -- will likely make such events more common.

Jens H. Christensen and Ole B. Christensen have created a mathematical model of weather conditions in Central Europe and reported their findings in the current issue of the British-based journal "Nature."

Jens Christensen spoke to our correspondent about their research. He says the data show that under the latest general weather conditions, Central Europe is likely to get less rain on average. But, he says, when heavy rains do come, they are likely to be particularly severe: "In a warmer world, which may very well be the outcome of the increase in greenhouse gases, there will be a tendency by climate models to show that Europe will experience dryer summers."

Strangely, the researcher says, another result may be increasingly severe floods: "At the same time, when we analyze what happens to precipitation events that are more intensive, we find that those intensive events are more intense -- tend to be more intense -- than they are today for many parts of Europe. So, in very short, you could say that -- although it's going to rain less -- when it rains, it [will] pour."

Floods of various intensities have struck the Czech Republic five times in the last five years. But the disastrous flooding of last August exceeded anything on record. It caused an estimated $2.5 billion in damage, one-third of that in the Czech capital, Prague.

Elsewhere in Central Europe, river systems like those of the Odra, Elbe and Rhone rivers overflowed their banks, bringing severe flooding in Germany, Austria, and other parts of the Czech Republic.

Jens Christensen says the Danish model is not able to predict when other floods might occur in Central Europe. He says only that they are most likely to happen in the spring during heavy snow melts, and in the late summer.

The model does indicate, however, that when they do occur, their frequency and severity are likely to increase. Officials, he says, should beware: "And then, of course, this has some consequences in terms of areas like in Central Europe that have large river systems, where we have seen problems like flooding."

The researchers says greenhouse gases and global warming are very likely the causes of the increasing drought-flood cycle. But Christensen warns that they can't be sure. Certainly, the phenomenon began to show up after global warming had been recorded. But unusually intense weather phenomena are, by definition, rare -- so rare that the sample is too small for a mathematical model to be certain of a cause-and-effect relationship.

"It would be nice if we could do that with some kind of significance," Christensen said. "The problem with extreme events is that they are very rare. And that means that whenever you make analyses like what we have done, it is very, very difficult to rule out in any sort of formal way that this is not just happening by chance."

Research such as that conducted by Christensen is forcing many countries and institutions in Europe to face the reality that catastrophic floods will reoccur.

In the Czech Republic, the opposition Civic Democratic Party has been pressing in the Czech legislature to create a special reserve in the Czech budget for future ecological disasters. The bill's proponents have not yet named an amount to be placed in reserve, nor has a source for the funds been established.

In Paris, some of the city's best-known museums are starting to move some 100,000 works of art to a storage site in the north of the city as a precaution against possible flood danger from the river Seine. French Minister for Culture and Communication Jean-Jacques Aillagon said the removal is the biggest undertaken since World War II, when many works were removed out of Paris to the south of the country, which was not occupied by German troops.