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Climate reality hits home, Part I - The weather extremes of October 2018 in Italy

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Storm Vaia hit Italy at the end of October. An unusual dip of the polar stream, extending as far south as Northwestern Africa, collided with the unseasonably warm air that continued to dominate the October weather from the Balkans up to southern Scandinavia. The abnormally warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea fed the cyclone with more energy and humidity. The Alps worked like a barrier to the strong south-easterly sirocco winds. The combination of those factors led to a storm with disastrous impacts. Wind gusts of up to 200 km/h razed over 14 million trees, several hundred kilometres of roads made unusable, entire valleys left without access to drinking water and electricity, inundations all over Italy. Thirty people died.

It all started in the evening of Wednesday, 24 October. During the day, the highest ever October temperatures were measured in Northern Italy and Switzerland. It was the last day of the 2018 heat wave that brought a quasi-tropical climate to Italy.

I stayed in the municipality of Ampezzo in the Carnic Alps that night. An unusually strong and warm Foehn Storm was building up. Deneb Gonano, the farmer I staid with, said she does not remember have experienced winds like this at this time of the year. The following days brought more weather extremes that even the older generations have never seen before in this part of the world.

On 26 October, I was cycling over three alpine cols from Cortina to Bolzano. It was still hot and sunny. The air was hazy and a smell of burned wood filled the air as soon as I reached Passo Falzarego. Hungry from the climb, I was telling myself the pleasant smell surely came from the wood-stove of pizzeria nearby. Not at all. About 20 km away, in the San Lucano Valley near Belluno, the Foehn storm brought down a tree that fell on an electricity line. The sparks triggered an immense forest fire that was ravaging for days. The fire destroyed protective forests, villages had to be evacuated. The mayor declared the state of emergency.

The sun cuts through the hazy air from the forest fire in Belluno as I cycle down the 1900 meters descent from Passo Gardeno to Bozen.

Then, from 27 - 30 October the next weather extreme hit the region as torrential rain and even stronger winds plagued the Northeast of Italy. Only 3 days before, I saw countless dried out rivers and sources. Now the Italian Alps looked like a completely different place. Countless valleys got devastated and were left with no access to electricity nor drinking water. Raging rivers caused inundations, an entire barrier lake was covered in carried away trees. Ski resorts were badly hit - right at the time when the lifts and the pistes had to be prepared for the coming winter season. The head of one local civil protection service spoke of apocalyptic scenes.

The images that were maybe most widely reported are those of the millions of razed trees, including 1.5 million cubic meter of spruce that made up the Stradivari Forest in Paneveggio. The famous Italian luthier got his tone-wood from this forest three hundred years ago. Since Stradivari's time, the spruce from this forest have been used for the world’s best instruments. Now a huge part of the forest is gone. Some of the storm wood is currently being rescued with the help of additional foresters from Switzerland. But the work of generations vanished within one hour. It will take another 100 years to fully restore the precious forest.

In Switzerland, storm Vaia took down 20,000 trees of the protective forest above the villages Bergün and Latsch (seen in the background).

The frequency and intensity of such weather extremes are increasing across the globe. It is a safe bet to say that more meteorological records will fall in the coming years. Years like 2018 with freak weather across the globe will be the new normal. We are experiencing the climate reality. To live with it, adaptation and improved zoning to mitigate the risks continue to gain in importance. This needs to be done in parallel to monumental reductions in CO2 emissions and enhancements of carbon stocks in forests and soils. The latest scientific consensus tells us that the world has 12 years to take the necessary actions to avoid the worst irreversible impacts of climate change. Doing so will mean transformative change across all economic sectors, happening at a speed never seen before.

Albeit not yet transformative, what happened in Mals, the small village of 5000 people in the Upper Venosta Valley, aroused interest across the globe. The “Miracle of Mals” is the story of a brave fight against the use of pesticides in apple plantations. Those plantations have continued to creep up the valley as the climate got more favourable to growing apples, transforming the former breadbasket into an apple monoculture. You can read about it Climate reality hits home, part I - One village’s brave fight for sustainable agriculture.



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