There are concerns that recent climate change is altering the frequency and magnitude of river floods in an unprecedented way. Historical studies have identified flood-rich periods in the past half millennium in various regions of Europe. However, because of the low temporal resolution of existing datasets and the relatively low number of series, it has remained unclear whether Europe is currently in a flood-rich period from a long-term perspective. Here we analyse how recent decades compare with the flood history of Europe, using a new database composed of more than 100 high-resolution (sub-annual) historical flood series based on documentary evidence covering all major regions of Europe. We show that the past three decades were among the most flood-rich periods in Europe in the past 500years, and that this period differs from other flood-rich periods in terms of its extent, air temperatures and flood seasonality. We identified nine flood-rich periods and associated regions. Among the periods richest in floods are 1560–1580 (western and central Europe), 1760–1800 (most of Europe), 1840–1870 (western and southern Europe) and 1990– 2016 (western and central Europe). In most parts of Europe, previous flood-rich periods occurred during cooler-than-usual phases, but the current flood-rich period has been much warmer. Flood seasonality is also more pronounced in the recent period. For example, during previous flood and interflood periods, 41 per cent and 42 per cent of central European floods occurred in summer, respectively, compared with 55 per cent of floods in the recent period. The exceptional nature of the present-day flood-rich period calls for process-based tools for flood-risk assessment that capture the physical mechanisms involved, and management strategies that can incorporate the recent changes in risk.
natural hazards, hydrology, flood risk assessment, river flood seasonality