Climate dynamics and extreme precipitation and flood events in Central Europe


  • Christoph Frei Climate Research
  • Huw C. Davies Atmospheric Science
  • Joachim Gurtz Climate Research
  • Christoph Schär Climate Research


climate change impacts, water cycle, Runoff processes, climate trends, flood forecasting, Alpine region, Rhine


Past changes and possible future variations in the nature of extreme precipitation and flood events in Central Europe and the Alpine region are examined from a physical standpoint. An overview is given of the following key contributory physical processes: (1) the variability of the large-scale atmospheric flow and the associated changes of the North-Atlantic storm track; (2) the feedback process between climate warming and the water cycle, and in particular the potential for more frequent heavy precipitation events; and (3) the catchment-scale hydrological processes associated with variations in major river flooding events and that are related to land-use changes, river training measures, and shifts in the proportion of rain to snowfall. In this context an account is provided of the possible future forecasting and warning methodologies based upon high-resolution weather prediction and runoff models. Also consideration is given to the detectability of past (future) changes in observed (modeled) extreme events. It is shown that their rarity and natural fluctuation largely impedes a detection of systematic variations. These effects restrict trend analysis of such events to return periods of below a few months. An illustration using daily precipitation from the Swiss Alps does yield evidence for pronounced trends of intense precipitation events (return period 30 days), while trends of stronger event classes are not detectable (but nevertheless can not be excluded). The small detection probability for extreme events limits possible mitigation of future damage costs through an abatement of climate change alone, and points to the desirability of developing improved early forecasting/warning systems as an additional no-regret strategy.