Extreme drought sweeps across Europe, intensifying heat and fueling fires

Extreme drought sweeps across Europe, intensifying heat and fueling fires

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Thousands of people have died in Europe this summer from historic heatwaves that have fueled massive wildfires. The weather was anything but normal – and even a casual observer can’t help but notice that something is amiss. But as temperatures rise and flames scorch the parched landscape, there’s an even more widespread and potentially catastrophic climate-related hazard wreaking havoc on the continent: extreme drought.

Months of low rainfall and above-average temperatures have plunged the region into a drought, the worst on record in some countries. It amplifies heat waves and increases the risk posed by wildfires, while wreaking havoc on crops and seriously affecting the economy.

Another wave of extreme heat hits Europe, triggering alarm

According to the European Drought Observatory, almost half of Europe is under “alert” conditions, which indicate severe drought and a large soil moisture deficit. Another 17 percent of Europe has reached the threshold where vegetation is suffering, partially dying or thinning out.

Farmers far and wide are struggling with the dry conditions.

The map above shows widespread, exceptionally dry conditions in western and central Europe, shaded brown. The colors are from satellites that detected significantly less evaporation in the brown-shaded regions, meaning there is little groundwater available to evaporate at all.

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

A dry autumn and winter meant that spring and summer groundwater was already low. The extreme temperatures seen so far this summer, compounded by human-caused climate change, have helped dry up these waters.

In July, southern parts of Britain, including London, received only 10 to 20 per cent of their average rainfall and in some cases next to nothing. London received barely a millimeter (0.04 in) of precipitation, compared to an average of 45 millimeters (1.77 in).

Satellite images show parks in London green a year ago, now brown.

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

Comparing satellite imagery of the land surface over England and northern France between this year and last shows a clear change: in the summer of 2021, much of the region was lush and green; In 2022 the area will be brown and barren.

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

Météo-France, the national weather service, issued a bulletin saying the country had experienced its driest July on record, with total rainfall about 85 percent below average.

Amid the drought, water shortages are widespread in Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Some large rivers – like the Rhine in Germany – are becoming precariously shallow. Portal reports that freight shipping costs on the Rhine have more than quintupled and many larger ships have been reduced to just 30 to 40 percent of their capacity. Otherwise, they risk running aground.

The Rhine is Germany’s main artery for shipping and any disruption will have repercussions across Europe. According to Portal, some economists fear that Germany’s GDP could fall by half a percentage point because of shipping barriers.

A similar hydrological problem has caused problems in Italy, where the Po is facing what the prime minister described as “the worst water crisis in 70 years”. Italy declared a state of emergency in five of the hardest-hit regions in early July. About 17 million people, almost 30 percent of the Italian population, live in the river basin.

A drought in Italy’s risotto heartland is killing the rice

About 41 percent of the Po River Basin is used for agriculture, which supports 3.1 million cattle (half the country’s stock) and 6 million pigs (almost two-thirds the national stock), according to the European Commission. The drought has cut crop yields by 30 percent in Italy, severely curtailing an already lackluster harvest as farmers planted less due to rising costs from the war in Ukraine.

Wildfire breaks out in Western Europe

In addition to shrinking reservoirs, lack of rainfall and sweltering heat are helping to increase the risk of wildfires 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 fighting the blaze, which is one of many that have erupted in France and the Iberian Peninsula since early July.

Fire risk is currently elevated across much of western Europe due to another heatwave that swept the region over the weekend, with highs forecast to exceed 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) in central and southern France.

Copernicus, a climate monitoring service linked to the European Union, is simulating a growing fire risk across western Europe in the coming years as temperatures continue to rise.

The role of weather and climate

The drought is both a cause and a consequence of the extremely hot summer that has hit Europe so far. July was the sixth warmest on record on the continent; June was the second warmest.

The hotter weather dries the landscape, which dries up the atmosphere, which in turn causes the air to heat up more easily. This cycle is extremely difficult to break, especially if the overall weather pattern favors rutting or the formation of a broad high pressure over Europe. This high-pressure “heat dome” deflects inclement weather, including rain, northward, allowing Europe to bake under inevitable sunshine and abnormal heat.

Man-made climate change has made a UK heatwave 10 times more likely, a study says

It is well known that human-caused climate change is increasing the intensity, frequency and duration of heat events and is also exacerbating the severity and impact of droughts. The UK Met Office said the record-breaking heatwave in mid-July, which saw over 40 weather stations blow above the UK’s previous record temperature, was about 10 times more likely to reach that magnitude due to climate change.