Southwestern Japan is in a state of emergency after heavy flash rains battered the region last week, flooding rivers and triggering severe landslides.
According to reports, at least 155 people are confirmed dead and dozens more remain unaccounted for. The prefectures of Hiroshima, including the densely populated eponymous city, and Ehime have been hit the hardest, yet the disaster has also ravaged nine other areas. The maps of mandatory evacuation areas indicate that an estimated 2 million people have been displaced from their homes, though it remains unclear how many of these structures will still be standing when citizens are able to return.
As of Monday, the rains have eased up and further warnings have been lifted. Floodwaters have yet to recede, however, prompting massive rescue efforts as police, fire departments, first responders, and soldiers attempt to locate people trapped in debris and collect those that have been stranded on rooftops and along impassable roads.
Many major highways and rail lines are still closed and tens of thousands of homes in Hiroshima are still without electricity or clean water.
According to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the flurry of rainfall that began last week intensified to record-breaking levels over the weekend. The Japan Meteorological Agency has reported that one area of the Kochi prefecture experienced a staggering 26.3 centimeters (10.4 inches) of precipitation in just three hours, nearly as much as the average amount for the entire month of July (32.8 centimeters or 12.9 inches), typically southwestern Japan’s second wettest month after June.
The news agency NHK states that 36.4 centimeters (14.3 inches) of rain fell between 5am and 7am on Sunday in the city of Uwajima, Ehime prefecture – about 1.5 times the average monthly rainfall for July.
The unprecedented rains are tragic, but not totally unpredicted – and could become the new normal. Numerous climate change models have suggested that Japan will see an increased frequency and intensity of heavy rain days in coming years.
“Mean precipitation in Japan is expected to increase by more than 10 percent over the 21st century, especially during the warm seasons,” wrote the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in their Nippon Changes report.
“While regional differences will likely exist, summer (June to September) precipitation in Japan is expected to increase 17 to 19 percent."
Climate researchers also agree that flood-inducing tropical cyclones (called hurricanes after they reach a certain wind speed) are likely to become more common and more severe throughout East Asia. This phenomenon of dialed-up extreme weather events, which appears to be affecting the storms reaching the Caribbean islands and US East Coast as well, is known to be driven by warming sea surface temperatures.