The clouds that formed over Copenhagen on the afternoon of 2 July 2011 brought the most expensive storm in Denmark’s history. In just two hours, the city was hit by 16 centimetres of rain – a quarter of its average annual rainfall. Water poured into basements and underground train tunnels across the city, traffic ground to a halt, and hospitals had to be evacuated. “Total damages were well above half a billion euros,” says Hans-Martin Füssel of the European Environment Agency, whose headquarters are in Copenhagen. Since then, the city has invested around EUR 400 million to make itself more flood-resistant, building higher steps around underground station entrances to keep out floodwater and attempting to separate rainwater drainage from residential and industrial waste water systems. “We want to be ready for the next big storm,” says Füssel.
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Copenhagen is not alone. Cities all over the world are starting to think about how to prepare for extreme weather. They call it “adapting to climate change”. They are responding to forecasts by climate experts who say that severe weather such as torrential rains, hurricanes, heat waves, and higher global temperatures will be far more common in the future. Statistics from insurance companies show that economic losses from natural disasters are already on the rise. In 2011, losses hit a new record of USD 220 billion, says reinsurance giant Munich Re. And things could get much worse. Since the beginning of the industrial era, global temperatures have increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius (°C). A new study by the World Bank describes scenarios with increases of 4 to 5 °C by 2100. “Despite all of our climate negotiations, global carbon dioxide emissions have risen by more than 40 percent since Kyoto. The climate system has a lag, so we should expect higher temperatures in the medium term,” says Olivia Serdeczny of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which conducted the study.
The scenarios show polar ice melt leading to a rise in sea levels of around one metre as a middle-of-the road prediction. As Serdeczny explains, “These are only hypothetical scenarios. However, the potential consequences are terrifying.” Cities face the greatest risk. Urban centres are much more vulnerable to climatic disturbances than less densely populated areas. They are hubs of energy, water, transport and data infrastructure for entire regions. Businesses and banks have their headquarters there. “Cities provide the lion’s share of a country’s economic output,” says Füssel. “If London is flooded or New York shuts down for a hurricane, this has a huge impact on the prosperity of the entire country.” Cities are hotspots of vulnerability, says Füssel, especially since they are often located by the sea or on large rivers, where flooding is more common.