Articles | Volume 14, issue 8
17 Aug 2010
 | 17 Aug 2010

Changes in flood frequencies in Switzerland since 1500

P. Schmocker-Fackel and F. Naef

Abstract. In northern Switzerland, an accumulation of large flood events has occurred since the 1970s, preceded by a prolonged period with few floods (Schmocker-Fackel and Naef, 2010). How have Swiss flood frequencies changed over the past 500 years? And how does the recent increase in flood frequencies compare with other periods in this half millennium? We collected historical flood data for 14 Swiss catchments dating back to 1500 AC. All catchments experienced marked fluctuations in flood frequencies, and we were able to identify four periods of frequent flooding in northern Switzerland, lasting between 30 and 100 years (1560–1590, 1740–1790, 1820–1940 and since 1970). The current period of increased flood frequencies has not yet exceeded those observed in the past. We tested whether the flood frequency fluctuation could be explained with generalised climatic indices like solar activity or the NAO. The first three periods of low flood frequency in Switzerland correspond to periods of low solar activity. However, after 1810 no relationship between solar activity and flood frequency was found, nor could a relationship be established between reconstructed NAO indices or reconstructed Swiss temperatures. We found re-occurring spatial patterns of flood frequencies on a European scale, with the Swiss periods of frequent flooding often in phase with those in the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain and less often with those in Germany. The pattern of flooding in northern Switzerland and the Czech Republic seem to be rather similar, although the individual flood events do not match. This comparison of flooding patterns in different European countries suggests that changes in large scale atmospheric circulation are responsible for the flood frequency fluctuations.