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In trio of storms hitting Western Europe, role of climate change is complicated

A satellite image of Storm Eunice. Image by NASA.

  • In early February, a polar vortex caused a series of three storms — Dudley, Eunice and Franklin — to hit the U.K. and Western Europe, unleashing heavy rains and winds across the region.
  • The most powerful storm was Eunice, which had wind measurements of up to 196 kilometers per hour (122 miles per hour).
  • Storms striking in quick succession are not unusual for Western Europe.
  • While climate change did not necessarily drive these winter storms, it likely made the rainfall and storm surge more intense.

BRUSSELS — This past week, the U.K. and Western Europe were hit by a trio of powerful storms that battered the region with wind and rain, causing widespread damage to homes, public buildings and trees.

First to blow through the region, on Feb. 16, was Storm Dudley, followed by Storm Eunice on Feb. 18, and Storm Franklin on Feb. 20.

Storm Eunice was considered to be the most powerful one, with some officials calling it the worst storm in 30 years. The Meteorological Office in the U.K. measured wind speeds of up to 122 miles per hour (196 kilometers per hour), about the strength of a Category 3 hurricane. This was largely due to a phenomenon known as a “sting jet,” a narrow airstream formed inside the storm that can create intense winds in a small area. The storm ripped through the roofing of London’s O2 Arena, sent a crane crashing into a Belgian hospital, and disrupted air and ferry travel.

At least 16 people were killed during Storm Eunice, according to the BBC.

While Eunice brought extremely powerful winds, Franklin unleashed a barrage of rain along with wind, which caused widespread flooding across the U.K.

Pascal Mailier of the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium told Mongabay that the storms were likely related to a strong polar vortex that formed in the Arctic and created a low-pressure system.

“We are in the phase where we [have] strong winds that push storms over the Atlantic from west to east,” Mailier said. “It’s a very mild winter, and mild winters are more associated with stormy weather.”

A monster wave monster at Newhaven, East Sussex, in the UK, during Storm Eunice. Image by StormChaserLiam / Twitter.

Mailier, whose research has focused on storm series, said the close succession of Dudley, Eunice and Franklin isn’t unusual for the region. For instance, there was a series of eight European storms that hit between January and March 1990, and a series of 12 storms between December 2013 and February 2014.

“I used to call them storm gangs, because they were really like an attack of storms,” Mailier said. “Over Europe, it is clear beyond any doubt [that there is] a tendency for storms to hit in groups. When you look to the other side of the Atlantic, it is quite the opposite.”

While Eunice brought unusually strong winds, Mailier said similar wind speeds were seen during that Great Storm of 1987, which unleashed hurricane-force winds across the UK and Western Europe, toppling millions of trees and killing at least 22 people.

Are these recent storms also driven by climate change? “Yes and no,” said Friederike Otto, a climatologist at Imperial College London.

“Climate change can alter the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather events, but it doesn’t do that for all events and definitely not for all events in the same way,” Otto told Mongabay.

“There is no evidence that the storm itself — so the wind speed and the strength of the storm from a wind perspective — has been made more likely, or more intense, because of climate change,” she said. “But storms are nevertheless more damaging because of climate change.”

The reason for that is because climate change increases rainfall and raises sea levels, which intensifies the rain and storm surge associated with recent storms, she said.

“It’s not that because of climate change, we are now completely doomed,” Otto added. “While it’s playing a role, it’s not completely changing the nature of winter storms. We have complete agency to adapt and be resilient to these storms.”

Banner image caption: A satellite image of Storm Eunice. Image by NASA.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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