Does global warming favour the occurrence of extreme floods in European Alps? First evidences from a NW Alps proglacial lake sediment record

B. Wilhelm*, F. Arnaud, D. Enters, F. Allignol, A. Legaz, O. Magand, S. Revillon, C. Giguet-Covex, E. Malet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Flood hazard is expected to increase in the context of global warming. However, long time-series of climate and gauge data at high-elevation are too sparse to assess reliably the rate of recurrence of such events in mountain areas. Here paleolimnological techniques were used to assess the evolution of frequency and magnitude of flash flood events in the North-western European Alps since the Little Ice Age (LIA). The aim was to document a possible effect of the post-19 th century global warming on torrential floods frequency and magnitude. Altogether 56 flood deposits were detected from grain size and geochemical measurements performed on gravity cores taken in the proglacial Lake Blanc (2170 m a. s. l., Belledonne Massif, NW French Alps). The age model relies on radiometric dating ( 137Cs and 241Am), historic lead contamination and the correlation of major flood- and earthquake-triggered deposits, with recognized occurrences in historical written archives. The resulting flood calendar spans the last ca 270 years (AD 1740-AD 2007). The magnitude of flood events was inferred from the accumulated sediment mass per flood event and compared with reconstructed or homogenized datasets of precipitation, temperature and glacier variations. Whereas the decennial flood frequency seems to be independent of seasonal precipitation, a relationship with summer temperature fluctuations can be observed at decadal timescales. Most of the extreme flood events took place since the beginning of the 20 th century with the strongest occurring in 2005. Our record thus suggests climate warming is favouring the occurrence of high magnitude torrential flood events in high-altitude catchments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)563-581
Number of pages19
JournalClimatic change
Issue number3-4
Early online date10 Dec 2011
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2012

Cite this