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Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 18, issue 10 | Copyright
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 2717-2739, 2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 23 Oct 2018

Research article | 23 Oct 2018

Reconstruction and simulation of an extreme flood event in the Lago Maggiore catchment in 1868

Peter Stucki1,2, Moritz Bandhauer1,2,a, Ulla Heikkilä3,b, Ole Rössler1,2, Massimiliano Zappa4, Lucas Pfister2, Melanie Salvisberg1,5, Paul Froidevaux2,3, Olivia Martius1,2, Luca Panziera1,2,6, and Stefan Brönnimann1,2 Peter Stucki et al.
  • 1Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, 3012, Switzerland
  • 2Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Bern, 3012, Switzerland
  • 3Meteotest, Bern, 3012, Switzerland
  • 4Eidg. Forschungsanstalt WSL, Birmensdorf, 8903, Switzerland
  • 5Institute of History, University of Bern, Bern, 3012, Switzerland
  • 6MeteoSvizzera, Locarno Monti, 6605, Switzerland
  • anow at: Schweizerische Energie-Stiftung SES, Zurich, 8005, Switzerland
  • bnow at: LogObject, Zurich, 8048, Switzerland

Abstract. Heavy precipitation on the south side of the central Alps produced a catastrophic flood in October 1868. We assess the damage and societal impacts, as well as the atmospheric and hydrological drivers using documentary evidence, observations and novel numerical weather and runoff simulations.

The greatest damage was concentrated close to the Alpine divide and Lago Maggiore. An atmospheric reanalysis emphasizes the repeated occurrence of streamers of high potential vorticity as precursors of heavy precipitation. Dynamical downscaling indicates high freezing levels (4000ma.s.l.), extreme precipitation rates (max. 270mm24h−1) and weather dynamics that agree well with observed precipitation and damage, and with existing concepts of forced low-level convergence, mid-level uplift and iterative northeastward propagation of convective cells. Simulated and observed peak levels of Lago Maggiore differ by 2m, possibly because the exact cross section of the lake outflow is unknown. The extreme response of Lago Maggiore cannot be attributed to low forest cover. Nevertheless, such a paradigm was adopted by policy makers following the 1868 flood, and used to implement nationwide afforestation policies and hydraulic structures.

These findings illustrate the potential of high-resolution, hydrometeorological models – strongly supported by historical methods – to shed new light on weather events and their socio-economic implications in the 19th century.

Publications Copernicus
Short summary
A catastrophic flood south of the Alps in 1868 is assessed using documents and the earliest example of high-resolution weather simulation. Simulated weather dynamics agree well with observations and damage reports. Simulated peak water levels are biased. Low forest cover did not cause the flood, but such a paradigm was used to justify afforestation. Supported by historical methods, such numerical simulations allow weather events from past centuries to be used for modern hazard and risk analyses.
A catastrophic flood south of the Alps in 1868 is assessed using documents and the earliest...