Study: Floods that hit Czechia in 2002 were unique in Central Europe

The floods that hit Czechia exactly 20 years ago were caused by the close proximity of two major periods of rainfall that occurred that month, according to a new study by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Czech Academy of Sciences. The team of researchers say that the event was unique in the region of Central Europe since at least the 1960s and couldn’t be predicted ahead of time.

Photo: Filip Víšek,  Czech Radio

It was called the thousand year flood. The deluge that occurred in August 2002 saw Czechia’s most iconic river, the Vltava, overflow to the extreme, resulting in dramatic images of areas of Prague under two metres of water. The water also spilled over the banks of the Elbe, Ohře and Dyje rivers, killing 17 people and forcing more than 200,000 to flee their homes.

Martin Sviták was one of the 1,000s of firefighters that were called into action at the time.

Malše River in South Bohemia | Photo: Filip Víšek,  Czech Radio

“I remember the turning point occurred from the night of the 6th to the 7th of August, when the rainfall in the Gratzen Mountains caused the overflow of the Malše River in South Bohemia. We had about an hour to evacuate the surrounding area. The water had risen so high that it was necessary to evacuate some people by boat.

“It was already clear at that time that it wasn’t going to be easy, but of course no one could have expected that a second wave of rainfall was going to hit soon.”

The second wave that he refers to was an even greater period of precipitation that took place over a period of three days from August 11–13.

Floods in 2002 | Photo: Archive of Metly

The close proximity of these rainfall periods was a unique occurrence not just in Czechia, but in the whole of Central Europe, over a period of at least 60 years, according to a newly published study conducted by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

The team analysed every case of heavy precipitation in the region that occurred since 1961, taking into consideration the location, time and the extremity of the event when compared to normal periods. These were then ranked by their severity according to the Weather Extremity Index (WEI).

Miloslav Müller | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Český rozhlas

While the initial rainfall from August 6–7 ranked ninth on the scale, the downpours that followed four days later registered as the third highest rate of precipitation recorded since 1961. The fusing together of these two extreme weather events, caused one of the largest floods to hit Czechia in its modern history.

After concluding their study the team wrote that such extreme events are always the result of extraordinary conditions in the atmosphere and cannot be predicted in advance of more than just a few days. “We have no other choice than to always remain prepared,” said one of the authors of the study Miloslav Müller.

Floods in 2002 | Photo: Effenberger,  Panoramio,  CC BY-SA 3.0

The extreme rainfall that occurred during the second wave was especially heavily concentrated in the southern and central parts of Bohemia, which contains many tributaries of the Vltava, the river which flows through Prague.

Floods in 2002 in Prague | Photo: Jan Rosenauer,  Czech Radio

Entire neighbourhoods of the Czech capital thus found themselves under water, with tens of thousands of people having to be evacuated.

Aside from the city’s zoo, many of whose animals would perish in the flood, one of the most heavily affected areas was Prague 8’s Karlín district. Local resident Rastislav recalled the event on Czech Radio.

“It was a huge lake, two metres of water. I used to live on the ground floor. There was just water everywhere, mud and a horrible rotting stench.”

Floods in 2002 | Photo: ZOO Praha

The flood would have a transformative effect on Karlín. Originally a working class neighbourhood, the subsequent two decades would see much of the district renovated and rebuilt. Today, Karlin is seen as a hip office neighbourhood, housing the headquarters of many of the country’s leading companies.

Nevertheless, Nikola Klučarovská from the National Heritage Institute told Czech Radio that evidence of the flood remains imprinted on parts of the walls of the district’s most famous landmark – Invalidovna.

Photo: Jan Rosenauer,  Czech Radio

“Even today, the attentive visitor can identify the level up to which the water reached. You can see it for example on the faded lower level of the building’s façade and the cracked plaster on the ground floor.”

On the occasion of the 20 year anniversary of the floods a special exhibition is currently on display in Prague’s Kampa area, allowing visitors to compare photographs of well-known parts of Prague during the floods of 2002 and today.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Eva Kadlčáková , Karolína Burdová
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