It seems likely that the death toll from the flash flooding which hit the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, following torrential rain, will continue to rise in the coming days.
That at least 16 people could lose their lives in such an idyllic location, in a part of the world not usually associated with extreme weather events, makes this storm all the more shocking.
Yet although flooding on this scale in Sardinia is certainly exceptional, it is by no means unprecedented. After all, part of the island’s appeal is its lush vegetation which is due to a high annual rainfall.
Whilst the capital, Cagliari, on the south side of the island sees just 460mm annually, central and eastern parts record around 700 to 1000mm per annum, with a peak during December.
In this particular deluge, described by Olbia’s mayor as ‘apocalyptic’, the town on the northeast coast recorded rainfall of around 130mm.
Yet the severity of the flooding suggests that local rainfall totals were far in excess of this amount, perhaps as high as 450mm. Indeed, flooding on an even grander scale has occurred in the recent past.
In December 2004, up to 700mm fell in the same region between 6th and 11th. In one day, the 6th, an astonishing 517mm of rain fell on Villanova Strisaili high in the eastern mountains. Such a rainfall event has been calculated to reoccur only every 65 years.
The run-off from such a deluge is likely to have accelerated down steep-sided valleys, only finding an outlet to the sea via towns and villages lying in its path.
Incidentally, many media outlets are referring to the latest period of heavy rain as ‘Cyclone Cleopatra’. This is frowned upon by many meteorologists for two reasons:
Firstly, this was not a cyclone in the conventional sense. The term ‘cyclone’ is most often used in reference to tropical and sub-tropical weather systems that develop over the world’s warmer oceans. Severe Tropical Cyclone Phailin, which recently hit India’s east coast is one such example.
Rather, Sardinia was hit by a severe frontal depression, resulting from a clash of airmasses.
Secondly, ‘Cleopatra’ is the name given to this depression by the meteorological department of a German university. In return for a fee, anyone can assign their name to either a ‘low’ or ‘high’ pressure system. Such a practice is not recognized by the wider meteorological community.
In the meantime, as the rescue and recovery operation continues in Sardinia, the area of low pressure responsible for the horrendous conditions will continue to bring very unsettled weather across much of the Mediterranean region.