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

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Brönnimann Stefan, Frigerio Luca, Schwander Mikhaël, Rohrer Marco, Stucki Peter, Franke Jörg,
Project Swiss Early Instrumental Measurements for Studying Decadal Climate Variability (CHIMES)
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Climate of the Past
Volume (Issue) 15(4)
Page(s) 1395 - 1409
Title of proceedings Climate of the Past
DOI 10.5194/cp-15-1395-2019

Open Access

Type of Open Access Publisher (Gold Open Access)


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, 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 d 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 analyze weather types and precipitation in a large ensemble of atmospheric model simulations driven 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 that could have been related to sea-surface temperature anomalies.