Extreme drought grips Europe, intensifying heat and fueling fires

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Thousands of people have died in Europe this summer following historic heat waves that fueled massive wildfires. The weather is far from normal – and even a casual observer can’t help but notice that something is wrong. Yet, as temperatures soar and flames scorch the parched landscape, an even more widespread and potentially disastrous climate hazard is wreaking havoc on the continent: extreme drought.

Months of low rainfall and above-average temperatures have plunged the region into drought, the worst on record for some countries. It intensifies heat waves and increases the danger posed by wildfires, while wreaking havoc on crops and having a serious impact on the economy.

Another extreme heat wave targets Europe, triggering warnings

According to the European Drought Observatory, nearly half of Europe is in “alert” conditions, implying severe drought and significant soil moisture deficit. A further 17% of Europe has reached the threshold at which vegetation is suffering, in some cases disappearing or thinning out.

Farmers everywhere are struggling to cope with the arid conditions.

The map above shows widespread exceptionally dry conditions over western and central Europe, shaded in brown. The colors are from satellites that have detected considerably less evaporation in regions shaded brown, meaning there is little groundwater available to evaporate in the first place.

Andrea Toreti, senior scientist at the European Drought Observatory, told Sky News the drought is on track to be the worst in 500 years.

A dry autumn and winter meant that groundwater by spring and summer was already low. The extreme temperatures seen so far this summer, intensified by human-induced climate change, have helped to dry up this water.

In July, southern parts of Britain, including London, received only 10-20% of their average rainfall, and in some cases almost none. London collected barely a millimeter of rain (0.04 inches), against an average of 45 millimeters (1.77 inches).

Satellite imagery shows parks in London, green a year ago, now brown.

The UK Meteorological Office confirmed it was the driest July on record for southern England and the driest country since 1935.

Comparing satellite images of the earth’s surface over England and northern France between this year and last year reveals a stark change: in the summer of 2021, much of the region was lush and green; in 2022, the area is brown and barren.

The drought in France is also among the worst on record.

Météo-France, the national meteorological service, issued a bulletin saying the country had its driest July on record, with total rainfall around 85% below average.

Amid the drought, water shortages have become widespread in Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Some large rivers – like the Rhine in Germany – are becoming precariously shallow. Reuters reports that freight shipping costs on the Rhine have increased more than fivefold and many large ships have been reduced to carrying only 30-40% of their capacity. Otherwise, they may fail.

The Rhine is Germany’s main maritime artery and any disruption will have repercussions for the whole of Europe. According to Reuters, some economists fear Germany’s GDP could fall by half a percentage point due to barriers to shipping.

A similar hydrological problem has caused problems in Italy, where the Po River is facing what the Prime Minister described as the “worst water crisis for 70 years”. In early July, Italy declared a state of emergency in five of the most affected regions. About 17 million people, almost 30% of Italy’s population, live in the river basin.

A drought in the heart of risotto in Italy kills the rice

About 41% of the Po River basin is used for agriculture, which supports 3.1 million head of cattle (half of the national herd) and 6 million pigs (nearly two-thirds of the national herd), according to the data. published by the European Commission. The drought reduced crop yields by 30% in Italy, slashing what is already a lackluster harvest as farmers planted less due to rising costs resulting from the war in Ukraine.

Wildfire breaks out in Western Europe

In addition to dwindling reservoirs, the lack of rainfall and scorching heat are helping to increase the risk of forest fires across Europe. A new wildfire formed near Bordeaux, France on Thursday afternoon, prompting 10,000 residents to evacuate. The BBC reported that 1,000 firefighters were actively involved in tackling the blaze, which is one of several to break out in France and across the Iberian Peninsula since early July.

The fire risk is currently high across large parts of Western Europe due to a fresh heat wave that has hit the region throughout the weekend, with highs expected to exceed 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) in central and southern France.

Copernicus, a climate monitoring service associated with the European Union, is simulating an increasing fire danger across Western Europe in the coming years as temperatures continue to rise.

The roles of weather and climate

The drought is both a cause and an effect of the extremely hot summer that has plagued Europe so far. July was the sixth hottest on record on the continent; June was the second hottest.

Warmer weather dries out the landscape, which dries out the atmosphere, making it easier to warm the air. This cycle is extremely difficult to break, especially when the global weather pattern favors the formation of ridges or the establishment of a broad high pressure over Europe. This high-pressure “heat dome” deflects inclement weather, including rain, northward, allowing Europe to bake in unavoidable sunshine and abnormal heat.

Man-made climate change has made UK heat wave 10 times more likely, study finds

It is well established that human-induced climate change amplifies the intensity, frequency and duration of heat events and also exacerbates the severity and effects of drought. The UK Met Office has announced that the record-breaking heatwave of mid-July, in which more than 40 weather stations exceeded the UK’s previous record high temperature, was around 10 times more likely to hit this extent due to climate change.

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