South Korea hit with deadly flooding as climate change makes extreme rainfall events more frequent

·Senior Editor
·4 min read

At least eight people were killed Monday after a record 15 inches of rain were unleashed in less than 24 hours on Seoul, in the latest evidence of how climate change has made extreme weather events more common.

The unprecedented rate of rain, which the Korea Meteorological Administration had warned would reach 2 to 4 inches per hour, turned roads into rivers and lakes, knocked out service to the subway system and submerged entire neighborhoods. The deluge triggered landslides and flooded basement apartments in the Gwanak district, where two adults and a child reportedly drowned.

People clean up debris at a traditional market damaged by flood after torrential rain in Seoul on Tuesday.
People clean up debris at a traditional market damaged by flood after torrential rain in Seoul on Tuesday. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

"The intense, heavy rain that broke the record for hourly precipitation in Korea's meteorological history is believed to be due to abnormal weather conditions caused by climate change," South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said at a press conference, according to Reuters. "The government should review the current disaster management system from scratch, taking into account these abnormal weather conditions caused by climate change."

Yoon himself was trapped Monday night in his high-rise apartment, the Washington Post reported, the ground floor of which was flooded. As the flooding receded, the extent of the devastation was revealed, with cars strewn on sidewalks like discarded toys, a blanket of mud lining roadways and shops, and heaps of belongings piled up in intersections.

The video footage posted to social media sites of the flooding had an eerily familiar feeling to it, coming during a year in the Northern Hemisphere that has obliterated rainfall records in several locations around the world.

More than 9 inches of rain fell in just seven hours in Lahore, Pakistan, last month, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. At least 37 people were killed in eastern Kentucky in late July when a record 12 inches of rain fell over the area just 48 hours after St. Louis, Ky., set its own record with more than 9 inches of rain in 24 hours. Those totals, and many others like them this summer, have overwhelmed local infrastructure.

A worker clears water from her shop at the historic Namseong Market in the Gangnam district of Seoul on Tuesday.
A worker clears water from her shop at the historic Namseong Market in the Gangnam district of Seoul on Tuesday. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

"We’re seeing more of these intense precipitation events, where there’s a lot of water dumped on an area in a short amount of time. And the infrastructure wasn’t designed to handle that amount of precipitation," Janey Camp, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo News.

As the Earth's temperatures have risen due to the greenhouse effect caused by the burning of fossil fuels, so too has the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. For every 1°C of warming, studies have found, 7% more moisture is added, in large part due to increased evaporation rates. Globally, precipitation rates have also edged up.

"On average, total annual precipitation has increased over land areas in the United States and worldwide," the Environmental Protection Agency says on its website. "Since 1901, global precipitation has increased at an average rate of 0.04 inches per decade, while precipitation in the contiguous 48 states has increased at a rate of 0.20 inches per decade."

A man with a bicycle walks along a street that was still draining after heavy rainfall in Seoul on Tuesday.
A man with a bicycle walks along a street that was still draining after heavy rainfall in Seoul on Tuesday. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

But that increase in rainfall has not been evenly distributed. Climate change also worsens drought conditions in some areas, and has been shown to alter weather patterns. When conditions are right, however, that excess moisture in the atmosphere can unload at unprecedented rates.

"Extreme precipitation events have produced more rain and become more common since the 1950s in many regions of the world, including much of the United States. In the U.S., the Midwest and Northeast have seen the strongest increases in heavy precipitation events," the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says on its website.

Touring the devastation in Kentucky on Monday that was left behind by last month's historic flooding, President Biden, like President Yoon, blamed climate change.

People clean up debris at a traditional market damaged by flood after torrential rain in Seoul on Tuesday.
People clean up debris at a traditional market damaged by flood after torrential rain in Seoul on Tuesday. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

"As you all know, we've suffered the consequence of climate change, a significant number of weather catastrophes around the nation," Biden said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed that sentiment Monday.

"The floods in Kentucky and extreme weather all around the country are yet another reminder of the intensifying and accelerate impacts of climate change and the urgent need to invest in making our communities more resilient to it," Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force Once.

As for South Korea, more heavy rainfall is forecast for the coming days.