6 October 2022

Too close to home: experiencing the impacts of Italy’s ‘water bomb’ as climate scientist

Dr Laura Zamboni

By Dr Laura Zamboni

Too close to home: experiencing the impacts of Italy’s ‘water bomb’ as climate scientist

Laura Zamboni is Cervest’s pioneering Lead Customer Climate Scientist and formerly Head of Climate Science. On September 15th, ‘a water bomb’ swept across Laura’s hometown in Italy. Claiming at least 11 lives, the torrential rain and flash floods damaged properties, phone lines went down and schools and roads were closed.

Despite handling complex climate data related to climate risk everyday and over 20 years of reckoning with the realities of climate change, it is still a shock for Laura to see the destructive impacts climate change can cause and the unsustainable lag with which societies accept scientific facts and adopt adaptive measures, especially when disasters hit so close to home. Below, we ask Laura to recall that day in September and share why it’s a harsh reminder of why everyone must not only mitigate but also adapt with climate change.

Can you describe what happened in Italy?

Devastating flash floods hit Marche – a central region in Italy – on September 15th. The ‘water bomb’, has been likened to a tsunami. Torrential rain and flash floods surged through the area and there was 40cm of rain in three hours – the equivalent of six months of rainfall.

Where were you when it occurred?

I was about 50 km away from the area that felt the greatest impact from the water bomb. Throughout the afternoon, the atmosphere was unusually humid. The only time I had experienced this was in the tropics, in southern Mexico – and so I expected torrential rain later in the day, following such convective build up. I was going about my evening with my family, and I thought the rain's intensity was lasting too long for a ‘normal’ thunderstorm. Thunderstorms, 30 or more years ago, used to last about 30-minutes but in that short time period a significant amount of rain and hail fell. However, that evening, the storm lasted four hours where I live.

How did the flooding impact the area?

Excessive rainfall led to flash flooding – the ‘water bomb’. Homes were flooded and there were property damages up to the first floor. Cars were washed away, roads turned into muddy rivers and landslides, phone lines were interrupted or down, and schools and roads were closed and damaged.

The emergency response has been incredible: the firefighters, the police, and volunteers. They have rescued people from up trees, on roofs, inside buildings, inside cars, and on the flooded streets. The central government has allocated five million euros for the initial emergency fund, alongside declaring a state of emergency in the region.

How many people have been injured?

At least eleven people have died, 50 were injured and two went missing, including children. One child was swept out of his mother’s arms by rushing waters. It took days to find his body. I am a mother myself and I still feel despair and sadness for the family. I have built my climate knowledge over many years but I, yet again, am being confronted with these horrendous realities. This disaster, its emotional overload, the resources it takes in the aftermath is another metric of extreme weather.

Tell us about the weather forecasts of the event

Recent weather forecasts did not predict the intensity of the weather correctly. There has been great disappointment about this because only a mild alert was issued over a much bigger area. It was a type of thunderstorm that stalls over an area, that instead of dissipating, continually gains energy downpouring more and more rain. It is called ‘V-shaped’ because of the shape of the clouds seen from satellites.

The physics behind it consists of a few ingredients: a low-level convergence and the consequent rising of air (which is common among thunderstorms), and an atmospheric disturbance transiting over the area. In this case, there was also an ‘atmospheric river’ that transported hot and humid air from southern sub-tropical regions – fuelling the storm.

Extreme summertime storms are among the hardest to forecast at present. It is unrealistic to expect weather forecasts to pinpoint exactly where, when, and how much rainfall there will be under all the circumstances

Why is climate risk management planning crucial?

Crisis and emergency response are the last resort when an extreme event occurs. Weather forecasts are in place to increase the alert level a few days or a few hours prior to an event and organize the emergency response accordingly. For example, being used to inform evacuations. Relying solely on these alerts is extremely risky because of the inherent imperfection of weather forecasts.

Moreover, only considering weather forecasts ignores a vast body of scientific knowledge. A well-designed and implemented climate risk management plan, compiled by local authorities should include information spanning seasons and long term trends. Rich statistics, spanning decades, define what is expected from the local climate. Advanced technology, such as Cervest’s climate intelligence (CI), can transform this data into decision-useful insights.

We have the knowledge and technology to stop working in emergency/crisis mode and step into adaptation mode, looking at longer term solutions, forecasting and resilience strategies and clearly defined policy. Predicting the weather is not the same as forecasting climate: the two complement one another.

For example, CI can be used to inform the adaptation of infrastructure to withstand specific water depths and flooding areas. Climate risk insights Data can help highlight the necessary improvements needed at the asset level, making them more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

You can reduce vulnerability by adding or improving defense barriers, for example. You can build or rebuild in areas that are less prone to flooding. Civil protection planning is best created based on a long-term strategy that takes climate change into account. These kinds of risk management plans require an assessment of a location or property including its vulnerability and resilience. These plans help to reduce risk.

Ultimately, we need to increase our knowledge of climate risk management, at all levels of society. From those that plan and manage, to those that respond – to each and every one of us. I think of those that lost their lives trying to save their cars; I think of the child swept away from his mother’s arms; I think of all the damage and the country going into an emergency. I sincerely hope we can all become more climate literate and use the technology and knowledge science has provided us with to anticipate, adapt, and reduce the risk caused by these climate hazards.

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