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Europe is staring into one of its driest summers in living memory.
Drought alerts have been issued for much of the Continent, fires have driven villagers from their homes, great rivers are sluggishly low and a brutal heat wave — which could reach a record-breaking zenith in the coming days — will strain agricultural production and nature’s resilience.
“We are seeing, really, largely unprecedented drought in many parts” of Europe, said Carlo Buontempo, director of the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.
The drought has already crimped production of hydroelectric power and food, adding to market pressure from the war in Ukraine. Many city authorities have asked residents to cut back their use of drinking water.
Things could get much worse. While there is a possibility that weather patterns shift and a wet August brings relief, the hottest part of the year has only just begun and the forecasts are portentous.
“For parts of agriculture, things are looking bad already. The forests are weakened. A lot would need to happen for it to become a good year,” said Fred Hattermann, a hydrologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
Unhelpfully, severe heat is predicted in the coming days across much of Europe. The U.K.’s Met Office issued its first ever “red alert” for Monday and Tuesday as it forecast temperatures over 40 degrees for the first time in history.
Such temperatures will further dry surface soil already stripped of much of its water. Heat waves also cause trees and shrubs to suck water from deeper underground as they try to survive, depleting the water table on which farmers, industry, cities and nature all rely as a backup during dry spells.
Ecosystems can collapse under the strain, warned Niko Wanders, an assistant professor of hydrological extremes at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
“Those impacts take more than just one week, they take years to recover,” he cautioned.
In the Po River basin in northern Italy, home to a third of the country’s population and one of Europe’s food bowls, there has been little or no rain for more than 200 days.
Italy’s longest river has shriveled, leaving a scar of sand across the plains. The Zibello, a barge sunk during the Second World War, has loomed out of the waters. Italy’s collapsing government has declared a state of emergency across much of the north.
High in the Alps, the snow that feeds reservoirs and hydroelectric dams also failed this winter. Hydropower in Italy is down 40 percent compared with last year, AFP reported.
This dip in power generation is not restricted to Italy and it comes at the worst possible moment for the European Union, which is battered by high power prices and the need to use every possible source of energy as alternatives to Russian gas. In Portugal last month, dams produced a quarter of the electricity they did in the previous June.
With global food flows already squeezed, the drought has Europe’s farmers spooked. The European Commission predicts that this year’s total yield of cereal crops, including wheat, barley and corn, will be 2.5 percent lower than last year due to the dry weather.
The dip in production may marginally add to the pain of developing countries, which face a food affordability crisis worsened by Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, Europe will still have a surplus of some 40 million tons of cereals to export in the coming season.
That’s small comfort for farmers in the worst affected areas. Hungary’s agriculture ministry said Wednesday that as of the beginning of the month it had received 8,413 drought damage notifications covering 322,000 hectares in 2022, three times the area of any previous first half of the year.
In Italy, the prospects are even more dire. “We are estimating the reduction of production of around 30 percent but maybe even more, especially for grain,” said Alessandra De Santis, who heads the Brussels office of the Italian farmers’ lobby CIA.
“This is the moment where the plants really need water to grow, and if we cannot give water to the plants in this specific moment, it means we will lose production,” said De Santis.
Regional droughts are a regular summer occurrence, especially in southern Europe. But the extent of the dry spell across so much of the Continent is exceptional. From Hungary, to Germany, to the Iberian Peninsula, the soil is dry and getting drier. Most European rivers are now flowing at below average rates.
“It is clear that things are deteriorating across the board,” said Wanders.
It’s too late to put in place the most effective drought management measures, which often require building up strategic reserves. The EU has called for all major river basins to be covered by drought planning. But many capitals have ignored the message.
“Executing those action plans is not a matter of weeks,” said Wanders. “It’s a matter of years and decades before you actually make your country resilient against drought.”
If the weather patterns persist through summer, the drought could go from bad, to historically bad.
Scientists don’t have to reach far back to find historical comparisons. Europe experienced a one-in-500 year drought just four years ago, but this week the Rhine was flowing even more slowly than in July 2018.
Overall, however, the situation isn’t as bad as four years ago, said Andrea Toreti, a senior scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, before adding: “Not yet.”
The degree to which climate change is driving or exacerbating this particular drought is not clear.
Such analysis is challenging, said Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London and one of the world’s leading experts in finding the fingerprints of global warming on our weather. Still, she believes global warming was behind an increase in droughts across much of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean. Humans also play a role by over-stretching water resources, said Otto. “A huge part of the problem is draining of land.”
Wanders studies the Rhine closely from his home in the Netherlands. He said the annual total of the water flowing through the river over the past two decades was around 3.29 cubic kilometers less than the historical average. “There’s definitely a trend,” he said.
Toreti said that even if efforts to rapidly cut emissions are successful, droughts like 2018 could become a common occurrence by the middle of the century.
There are two key dynamics at play in the relationship between the warming planet and the drying out of Europe. First, the warming Continent not only means more evaporation but also earlier vegetation growth, which also takes up water.
“Our groundwater, lakes and rivers are replenished in winter,” said the Potsdam Institute’s Hattermann. “Since winter is getting shorter, plants start growing earlier and use more water. So even if precipitation remained the same, it would become drier.”
Global warming has also altered Europe’s weather and wind patterns so that air pressure systems increasingly get stuck, which can create persistent periods without precipitation, as has happened this year.
Long term, vast parts of the Continent are getting drier. Even if the drought breaks this summer, the reprieve for topsoil and surface water would not be enough to return groundwater levels and reservoirs to once-normal levels, said Hattermann. “For that, we would actually need a number of wet years.”
Aitor Hernández-Morales contributed reporting.
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