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Climate of the Past An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Discussion papers
https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-2019-17
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-2019-17
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 15 Feb 2019

Research article | 15 Feb 2019

Review status
This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal Climate of the Past (CP).

Causes for increased flood frequency in central Europe in the 19th century

Stefan Brönnimann1,2, Luca Frigerio1,2, Mikhaël Schwander1,2,3, Marco Rohrer1,2, Peter Stucki1,2, and Jörg Franke1,2 Stefan Brönnimann et al.
  • 1Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Switzerland
  • 2Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland
  • 3Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss

Abstract. Historians and historical climatologists have long pointed to an increased flood frequency in Central Europe in the mid and late 19th century. However, the causes have remained unclear. Here, we investigate the changes in flood frequency in Switzerland based on long time series of discharge and lake levels, of precipitation and weather types, and based on climate model simulations, focusing on the warm season. Annual series of peak discharge or maximum lake level, in agreement with previous studies, display increased frequency of floods in the mid 19th century and decreased frequency after the Second World War. Annual series of warm-season mean precipitation and high percentiles of 3-day precipitation totals (partly) reflect these changes. A daily weather type classification since 1763 is used to construct flood probability indices for the catchments of the Rhine in Basel and the outflow of Lake Lugano, Ponte Tresa. The indices indicate an increased frequency of flood-prone weather types in the mid 19th century and a decreased frequency in the post-war period, consistent with a climate reconstruction that shows increased (decreased) cyclonic flow over Western Europe in the former (latter) period. To assess the driving factors of the detected circulation changes, we analyse weather types and precipitation in a large ensemble of climate model simulations forced with observed sea-surface temperatures. In the simulations, we do not find an increase in flood-prone weather types in the Rhine catchment in the 19th century, but a decrease in the post-war period related to the sea-surface temperature anomalies.

Stefan Brönnimann et al.
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Stefan Brönnimann et al.
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Short summary
During the 19th century flood frequency was high in Central Europe, but it was low in the mid-20th century. This paper tracks these decadal changes in flood frequency for the case of Switzerland from peak discharge data back to precipitation data and daily weather reconstructions. We find an increased frequency of flood-prone weather types during large parts of the 19th century and decreased frequency in the mid-20th century. Sea-surface temperature anomalies can only explain a small part of it.
During the 19th century flood frequency was high in Central Europe, but it was low in the...
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