IF WE SURVIVE THIS... Heat, flood and climate change in Riga.

Riga was just facing another record-breaking spring/summer with heat waves more powerful than in the Mediterranean. What's worse now, it's replaced by unpredictable and strong temperature drops, blasting storms and massive rainfalls. This instability of the weather proves the Baltic sea region is definitely going to face the best and the worst from this infamous climate change that is inevitably happening as we speak. The south of our hemisphere will only get warmer, the very north might eventually get colder, but what will be the messed-up scenario for Riga stuck in the middle?
climate change, global warming, flood, riga, cartoon
There is nothing more discussed and reflected on the national media than everything, that's messed up with the weather. It seems the turning point has come, and there are news on anomalies taking place across the country every single day. Despite the weather changing rapidly, people in Riga are already aware of the city always been in weird relationship with climate. It could get unbearably cold with humidity so high in winter the puddles wouldn't freeze over even at -20°C (meanwhile the "northern" Oslo is crispy, yet dry at the same temperature). On the contrary, the weather during summertime has been somehow pseudo-tropical for a decade or so - it can get steamy and sultry at +30°C during the day with light, frequent rain in evenings or nights.

There is the Daugava river bringing maritime climate in to keep the wind and humidity (and gulls) present. And then - there are forests west from the city keeping winds away from Pārdaugava (the left bank), thus making the climate up to 3 degrees warmer than the other side of Riga. The climate mess went too far several years ago, when people faced +12°C both on Christmas and on Midsummer the same year. In a country, where winters should be cold and snowy and summers - hot and dry, this was a signal that those times are inevitably over, an the age of extremes and anomalies has begun.

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The weather forecast in Latvia (@memezaurs).

THE HEAT
When speaking about calamities caused by fire, be it summer or winter, Riga has faced some regular cases from burning buildings to whole neighbourhoods. E.g. constantly burning church towers, man-ignited or by lightning, or the great city fire in 1821 that took 702 buildings or roughly 1/4 of the suburbs (started by a military miscommunication though, not by weather conditions). As a matter of fact, it was actually forbidden to build brick or stone buildings close to Old Town up to the beginning of 1860's due to military conditions. If the enemy comes, all the wooden suburbs ought to be burnt down to the ground so no one get them.

When speaking about the weather, it is rather related to warmer climate or drought - in Riga and nation-wide. 2018, shared with 2000 and 2008, were historically the third warmest years ever after 2015 and 1989 (an average temperature with 1,2°C above normal). Despite good amount of snow inland on January and February, 2018 was also the driest year in history with 32 % of precipitation below normal (since 1924 , when its observation began). Riga also had its tropic night record stripped from earlier times as most nights hit the temperature higher than +20°C. This year we might have had a couple already before summer solstice. Finally, 14 February 2019 set a repeated temperature record since 1925, when an ordinarily cold winter day reached +6,1°C nationally.

Weird, yet essential to this article, an independent Facebook group was even created last year by fun seeking individuals, comparing weather in Riga to other cities (mostly down south). Needless to say, readings had one constant pattern - they were all literally shining.

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A situation already common in Riga in June (© Lolita Tomsone, 8 June 2019).

In April 2017 there were 34 heat records smashed nationally during the first part of the month, that correlated with 18 records of cold. Meanwhile, the record for warmest April in general belongs to Riga, taking place in 2000 with whooping +27,9°C. The same temperature was almost repeated in 2019, causing Japanese cherries in the Sakura park we have written about to bloom few weeks earlier than usual.

The hottest summer day in Riga (+34,5°C on 15 July, 1885) still stands. No doubt though - it will be a massive signal to the country, when this 134-year-long record falls, most likely much sooner than later. The highest nationally registered temperatures keep on climbing during this millennium, too. Almost every highest measure from TOP 15 temperatures and about 60% of TOP 30 are from the last 19 years. Finally, the warmest night highest is again thoroughly dominated by the last decade.

On 14 October 2018 the temperature reached +19°C in the capital, thus, breaking another heat record for that day from 1889 (needless to say, books were overwritten in Sweden, Norway and Finland on that weekend as well). Finally, another record for 13 June just collapsed before our eyes in 2019 - with +32°C at the "Riga" airport and elsewhere it beat a temperature extreme registered roughly 50 years ago. Jasmine trees were blooming almost a month earlier than normal, also cherries had ripe drupes already in some places around the country.

Off topic, but France just experienced its hottest day in history (29 Jun). A fact the whole world can't deny any more. Similarly, it's the second hottest June in Switzerland with both given countries sharing both records exclusively in this millennium. This is the first time ever, when France has raised its heat alert to red, while Spain is battling a large wildfire in Catalonia, which is said to be the region's worst in 20 years1.

THE WATER
There is a Latvian Daina (national folk song) that basically translates as "Praised by many / finally I saw Riga / surrounded by sand hills / the city itself is in waters". Indeed, there were nothing but dunes around Riga centuries ago before it got civilized. For years the town was literally located right between the wild and flooding Daugava and a small confluent river the city might have been named after. One can only guess, how many times Riga got submerged due to ice blockages, when stopping the flow of rivers constantly. Or simply because it has always been only several meters above sea level - an easy prey to floods through centuries. Imagine, what happened, while the water level rose 3+ meters above sea level even as late as XIX century, when more organized control of water flow and dam forming began, and the city ground levels got pushed higher and higher to avoid this calamity. A lot earlier though (April 13, 1709) a record took place reaching 4,68 m above sea level. Subtracting the approximate terrain of today's Riga, it meant that every non-swimmer with lips lesser than 2 meters high would most likely drown2.

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A plaque dedicated to the great flood of Riga (© Kaspars Garda; 2014).

Despite 2018 being the driest year in the history of Latvia, Riga, ironically, also holds the status of rainiest day and month that year, as well as the highest average amount of precipitation this decade (in July, October and September months of 2018, respectively). If it continues this way for a few decades, maybe we can reach the amount of water entering the city as illustrated by an art piece of the prominent Latvian artist Kristians Brekte. Ironizing about the after-crisis situation in the country (when "the water was already at the people's lips", and, for many, there was nowhere else to go), he slipped a model of the Freedom monument into the Daugava River (an equivalent to the Liberty statue in NYC). Sadly, he also accidentally outlined some radical tides of waters both the people and the city could face some day in the future.

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Water is already at the people's lips by Kristians Brekte (Photo by Didzis Grodzs, 2011).

Lately there are more and more flooded streets during summer rains. One reason could be frequent intensive thunderstorms taking place in last 30 days from now. The other, more credible - the city's underground and gutter infrastructure is literally bonkers. Sadly, or, maybe luckily this time, many will agree the reason is the latter. Ill-considered organisation of the city's road infrastructure is a well-known trademark of the now-crumbling city council. One just needs to wait for some real "cats and dogs" pouring any time tomorrow, and the city will shut down. Since the ice deposit (primarily up in the north and then elsewhere) has been melting, there have been speculations about several scenarios Riga and also Latvia could face with rising sea levels, too. The country is already constantly aware of the coastal erosion already, yet everything could come as a  surprise today.

There are also large storm systems drifting across Europe and bringing heavy rains in with heavy tempests that, by the way, have been pretty active again recently. What's special this year, is one hurricane leaving damage as in pictures below few days ago and reaching F2 at damage scale (let's say - it means "two times fucked", but it can also get 3 times more). It's a super rarely experienced anomaly, yet here it is.

Meteorologist and journalist Toms Bricis has reminded to the public several times though - hurricanes are not such an infrequent phenomenon in Latvia. Whether 80 years ago or 40, such tornadoes, increased by hail, took place across the country, but simply were not covered by any channels, especially the camera-able and rapid social media. What's missing is Latvia having no routine for this and similar occasions to be announced in time by the responsible offices (however - who would know this was meant to happen anyways). Latvia also has zero practice in building wind-resistant and seismically durable housing (just because - "it never really storms like in the mid-USA"). Even older trees are inspected poorly and both endanger and then damage surroundings and lives. Finally, last week, when there was a massive storm warning again with a chance of sea levels rising, the council of Riga didn't even lift a finger to pull rubbish bins off the beach. See the results for yourself.

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Rubbish bins having a holiday at Vecāķi (© Karīna Miezaja, 5 July 2019).

The country also has only one, half-functioning Doppler radar, which barely detects formations of storm systems, especially including tornadoes. But Latvians are not to be blamed here though - assuming for years and even centuries that hurricanes are not a European thing, an international "European Severe Storms Laboratory", responsible for research, development and implementation of knowledge and strategies, was only founded in 2002(!) and still has an ugly webpage.The USA did it more than 40 years ago, although, Europe can't compete with American statistics here.

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A "wannabe Katrina" forming in the Baltic Sea (5 July, 2019).

THE WINTER
One can still reckon those days, when living in Riga was living the "white Christmas". Even apart from several long gone years as the snowiest in history, record amount of precipitation fell on Riga during winters of 2010 and 2011. Before that there were more or less solid, low temperatures with more rather than less of snowfall. Last years, though, have been odd in character. One year, as mentioned earlier, we experienced pushing +12°C on Christmas day, then raining and slushing on the next, then having again a solid 30 cm of white crust in the parks the following weekends. The winter of 2018/19 was short, but very traditional - few weeks of -15°C, then few weeks with snow and the Sun shining through anticyclone, and then few days with frosty, flaky Christmas. Sadly, too short for this to be really called - a Northern winter.

Freezing temperatures are stepping back with only one year in this millennium appearing in the middle of TOP20+ other cold years. Some time ago there was still a huge activity along the Gulf of Riga by the end of winter. Many would go at least 100 km up the north-west from Riga to practice "ice watching" - gazing at or climbing on ice hills and formations usually higher than 3-6 m. Now there are predictions the Baltic Sea might not freeze over any more at all in the following decades. 

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Ice hills at Jurmala Beach, 1929 (©Zudusī Latvija; LNB).

The overall problem with winter is not that it's getting warmer. In fact, like mentioned earlier some are getting snowier than others around this millennium, and some temperatures are as low as usually. The problem is that winter is quite unpredictable these days. It can be crispy and solid, it can be sludgy and rainy, it can be slippery and humid and all of that - in one week's time.

THE ALTOGETHER
After the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg started her "School strikes for the climate", a portion of Latvian youth began in Riga, too. Joining the global "Fridays for Future" demonstration movement on 15 March 2019, there were several hundreds of mostly young adults or even adolescence gathering in one of the central parks in Riga. For sure, here we are no different to many other Western countries, where older generations have lead the planet upto this point, when it's basically left for the ones, who haven't even done anything bad yet (although, buying a t-shirt for one quid is buying oneself into this disaster, too - Years&Years). But what's different to us, is that many wrong decisions about the climate preservation, personal environmental habits and nature protection in Latvia have been executed, committed, allowed or adopted by the corny ones called "The Greens". "We are a green forest country, we don't have any problems," could describe their short-term thinking in the nutshell as well as the country's.


The protest this spring was just a proof that there are many "Gretas" in Latvia, too. Sadly, we don't hear about them as they are more introvert than necessary. Or there are still confused parents that keep on smothering younger minds. Hell knows. Yet, there are many well educated young adults that both change their own habits and also try changing the society bit by bit. One of them is Kristiāna Griķe holding bachelor and master degrees of environmental sciences and serving as the climate ambassador of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Latvia in 2019. Sporting a lifestyle of zero waste and upcycling movement for years, Kristiāna uses her tools learned at schools, university and volunteering in Southern France to leave as smaller wrinkle on the face of the Earth as possible. She runs workshops, works with the youth, creates art pieces from trash, or simply enjoys life responsibly, without buying any manufactured goods for more than 2 years straight!

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Kristiāna Griķe (Photo from personal archives).

CAPITAL R asked Kristiāna to share her personal opinion on how does it look like in Riga now with the climate and what few alternative scenarios could there be in the future.

"Of course, we have these radical temperature swings - then it's too hot, then it's too cold, then it's too long for changes to take place or too fast for continuity to settle down. This instability and unpredictability also brings storms of today and is actually the beginning of climate change, not the middle of the process, nor aftermath. One can only guess, what the real climate change will bring us. I am very much bothered about what happens with the sewage system in Riga that often is very dysfunctional (an example video from the city centre below; 8 July 2019 - CR). It also includes managing waters that are driven by wind into the gulf of Riga, then into the Daugava river an then the city canal. Also Riga itself (like any other city, though) serves as a heat battery - streets and walls accumulate warmth and keeps it much longer. It leads to warmer nights and too much warmth in the atmosphere that leads to harsher micro climate for people.


When talking about air pollution in Riga, it is still fairly green with fairly good air conditions when compared globally (despite some bad indices and dust been blown time to time across the city from coal ports). Also, when planning the new development project of Riga, mobility is finally one of the council's top priorities to reduce car presence from the centre as much as possible. If succeeding, it will eventually improve the air quality in the city. Planting and preserving trees and greenery is another mandatory step to increase air condition in the capital. Sadly, green urban areas these days are developed according to the looks rather than function, and they are supported by the so-called "controlled nature" - forced lawns, trees with cobblestones at their feet, bare soil, etc., thus limiting natural processes and only leaving a few green landmarks casting refreshing shade or keeping some humidity in soil. I wish there were more naturally created green and permacultural areas that maintain rich micro ecosystems. They might not be as beautiful as flower beds that get changed twice per season, but could be more sustainable and still good looking. It would be nice to have a set of official guidelines (e.g. compost zone where possible) every land owner ought to apply at their green property thus maintaining higher greenery standards in cities (the law prohibits rather than advises any grass-plot on private property being higher than 20 cm3 - CR).
Strongly developed green policies would eventually lead to more people being positively driven and comfortable to be outside, thus, generating a society aware of the nature being important part of our own life, health, well-being.
Many things related to global pollution and climate change are related to the evolution of our civilization. There were times we had nothing, now we are thriving and wealthy, and done with fighting for it. Yet, the production and manufacturing for large industries is still slow and old; it uses its resources till the last bit. Naturally, such thinking ends someday and it transfers from "mine, mine, mine" to "why and what am I doing now?" Some industries also start to adapt this concept, but it's hardly enough.

If I may predict what Riga would look like, say, in 2069, IF THINGS GO WRONG (not even at the worst case scenario), I say that all the city's surroundings go underwater. Period. Forget about living in Mārupe that is one of the lowest territories by the gulf of Riga. I don't believe the capital would sink, but its territory would shrink noticeably, say, suburbs like Kleisti, Bolderāja, Daugavgrīva etc. Many buildings' first two storeys would be uninhabitable, thus, limiting the amount of people being able to live in urban areas, but also making Riga slowly turn into some Venice of the North. Many would move out from the capital and settle down in rural areas, where the terrain is naturally higher. Riga could become another underwater entertainment destination for scuba divers, that could actually be a pretty good business (some sources predict the very worst scenario will bring extra 68 m rise of the water level after all ice melts in around 50 years - CR).

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The very worst case scenario in 50 years (© citadapasaule.com).

As for the temperatures, no one really knows yet. Some foresee them going up, some anticipate they might go down. Globally temperature will also change everything related to the Gulf stream and its masses, and storms accompanied to it.
I advise people to be ready for everything, even to read some survival 101's or create a little survival kit in order to withstand first extreme conditions. Especially, when some protection or regulation systems fail. It sounds a bit radical, but the unpredictability of the future today might ask for extra terms - what will I do at "the day after tomorrow".
IF THINGS GO WELL in 50 years, Riga could own a maximally developed living natural greenery (non-controlled ecosystems). If there would be any slums in the city, they could be conserved and overplanted, and left for the public to use. The centre would also very much be limited for motorized vehicles, and it would feel like the old times; when I look at some antique pre-WWI photos, it feels so good to watch at them - when the streetscape belonged to the human scale. For sure, there can be vehicles, but they should be driven slowly and carefully. I would feel much safer, if the city had well designed, strong and durable water dams and well maintained flood and sewer systems. And they shouldn't need to be utterly functional and robust - all structures could be multi-purposely used as space for the public, greenery, housing etc. Speaking about housing, I wish we would build buildings with much longer exploitation life, when houses would again stay for centuries rather than 60 years. And the city could be built with much more space for community spirit - to meet, greet and exchange," predicts Kristiāna.

THE END IS NIGH?
Well, things are out of hand, as you see, but could there be some hope in there? Apart from this June been the hottest ever recorded on Earth (overtaking the June in 2016) and also in Latvia4, it has brought us pretty darn bad storms and a very chilly and breezy start of July. So autumnal it rather feels like October. It also rained 1/3 less than normal in June, but it did pour cherry- and plum-sized hailstones and left several areas with snapped forest zones because of some wild gusts. Eventually - if the scientists are not sure about the outcome of the future, what are we to draw conclusions? The most important thing is, if we want to survive this, it's all about teamwork and all about being updated as much as possible to be ready for the inevitable. Even if it never comes.

UPDATE: On 12 July, right after this post was published, Latvia faced its lowest temperature for this summer date in history - +4,3C. Happily, on the same day a general national meeting between ministries were held, beginning discussion on coastal evacuations, emergency energy and payment plans, and preparations for force majeure cases5.


*General statistics subtracted from the web page of Latvian Environment, Geology and Meteorology Centre
1Hottest day ever in France as temperature of 45.9C recorded.news.sky.com.
2Caune. A. Pati Rīga ūdenī... Rīga: Zinātne, 1992. 167p.
3Rīgas pilsētas teritorijas kopšanas un būvju uzturēšanas saistošie noteikumi. www.likumi.lv
4Šā gada jūnijs Latvijā - siltākais novērojumu vēsturē. www.lsm.lv
5VARAM: Latvijā nākotnē varētu nākties evakuēt iedzīvotājus no piekrastes teritorijām. delfi.lv

Comments

  1. Cilvēkiem vajag "saregulēt dabu" tik pat labi, kā tie saregulējuši savu pasauli, īpaši pēdējā gadsimta laikā sociāli taisnīgu, bez kariem un genocīda.

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  2. Jā, tas gan. Bet, kamēr ūdens reāli nesmeļas mutē...

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  3. Kad pārstāsim domāt,ka citā pasaules malā notiekošās dabas katastrofas mūs neskar, tad kaut kas arī mainīsies. Jo mēs varam priecāties "zaļajā" Latvijā, ka tas piesārņojums, kas Indijā, mūs neskar, bet gaisam sienu neuzbūvēsi un ūdeņiem arī.
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    2016.gadā jūrā nofilmēju virpuļvētru, lai gan no 1980.gada staigājot gar krastu, nekad pirms tam nebiju redzējusi. Tik milzīgu krusu kā pagājušā gadā, arī nekad nebiju redzējusi.
    Pēc negaisa skrējām laukā un lasījām kā končas.
    Domāju, būs vēl neprognozējamāk un palīdzības komplektiņš mājās noderēs katram. Vismaz maziņš prīmuss, ja indukcijas krāsns nestrādā, jo vētrā elektrības pārrāvums uz nenoteiktu laiku. :)

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    1. Neslikti novērojumi! Tencinām par komentāru!

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