What is Storm Daniel and is it linked to climate change?

What is Storm Daniel and is it linked to climate change?
Meteorologists have noted that storms like the one which killed thousands of people in Libya are relatively rare and come amid a major and unsettling change in the weather in the Mediterranean region.
3 min read
13 September, 2023
Storm Daniel as it moved north of Benghazi towards the Libyan coast before making landfall. [Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel - 3B satellite]

Thousands of people in Libya have lost their lives and many more are missing after catastrophic floods caused by Storm Daniel last Sunday.

This was Libya's worst natural disaster for 40 years and the surprise storm has raised inevitable questions about the role of climate change.

As the floodwaters surged, two dams collapsed, sending torrents toward the city of Derna, with devastating results. One-quarter of the city was destroyed and multiple other cities in northeastern Libya were also hit.

The deadly storm resulted from a strong low-pressure system which earlier caused severe flooding in Greece.

It then moved southwards into the Mediterranean, eventually evolving into a cyclone known as "medicane"— a Mediterranean tropical-like storm.

Professor Suzanne Gray, a meteorologist at the University of Reading, notes that medicanes are relatively rare occurring about 1-3 times per year, but their impact can be cataclysmic due to flooding, storm surge, and fierce winds.

Why did this happen? And why now?

2023 has seen unprecedented climate disasters globally. Wildfires, heat-waves, and record-breaking weather extremities have been recorded across the planet. Mediterranean temperatures in particular have skyrocketed, with average temperatures unusually warm.

This abnormal heat, scientists say, supercharged Storm Daniel, intensifying the rainfall caused by it.

“The warmer water does not only fuel those storms in terms of rainfall intensity; it also makes them more ferocious,” Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist from Leipzig University, told the Science Media Centre.

Would the heavy rainfall in eastern Libya have happened without climate change? 

 “Climate change is thought to be increasing the intensity of the strongest medicanes and we are confident that climate change is supercharging the rainfall associated with such storms,” Professor Liz Stephens of Reading University in the UK commented. 

“It would be interesting to evaluate whether, like 40 degree temperatures in the UK, the rainfall totals in eastern Libya would have been physically implausible without climate change. However, this is a complex question that would have to take into account any changes in storm track as well as the rainfall totals," Prof. Stephens elaborates.

In Libya, a country already ravaged by conflict and divided between rival administrations, political unrest amplifies vulnerability to such disasters. The repercussions of the chaos are dire.

As neighbourhoods were washed away in Derna, phone lines faltered and rescue efforts were hindered. The emergency and Ambulance authority spokespersons told several media outlets: “Libya was not prepared for a catastrophe like that."

In the wake of this unprecedented storm, the staggering death toll has left communities reeling, amplifying scrutiny towards Libya's eastern government accused of negligence and an alarming lack of preparedness.