Two-thirds of Europe is under some sort of drought warning, which would be the worst such event for 500 years. With no significant rainfall recorded for almost two months in western, central and southern Europe and no forecast for the near future, drought has reduced Europe’s once mighty rivers – Loire, Rhine , Po and Danube – to trickles, with potentially dramatic consequences for industry, freight, energy and food production. Driven by a deteriorating climate, an unusually dry winter and spring followed by record summer temperatures and repeated heat waves have left Europe’s vital waterways under-replenished and overheated.
According to the BBC, the latest report from the Global Drought Observatory indicates that 47% of the European continent is in a “warning” state, meaning that the ground has dried up. Another 17% is on “alert”, meaning the vegetation is showing “signs of stress”. The Drought Observatory is part of the research wing of the European Commission. The report warns that the dry spell will affect crop yields, trigger forest fires and could last several months longer in parts of southern Europe. Compared to the average of the previous five years, the European Union (EU) harvest forecast is down 12 to 16% for corn, soybeans and sunflower. While heat waves and water shortages have created unprecedented pressure on water levels across the EU, all European lakes have dried up to some degree.
Over the past month, the European media has been filled with dramatic images of dried up and exposed riverbeds. In places, the longest river in France, the Loire, can now be crossed on foot. The Rhine, the longest and largest river in Germany, becomes impassable for barge traffic. In Italy, the Po is two meters below normal and Serbia is dredging the Danube. According to media reports, the European summer has not been so dry since 1540. This year’s drought has seen a record heat wave with temperatures in many EU countries reaching historic highs of more than 40 degrees Celsius. The impact has been debilitating: water transport has been hit hard; power generation suffered, causing energy prices to rise to record highs; and food prices have risen sharply.
Not that Europe hasn’t suffered from drought before; there were droughts in 2003, 2010 and 2018, which were also compared to the 1540 event. The 2018 drought was also quite severe, but the European Commission’s research wing warned that data Preliminaries suggest that “the current drought still appears to be the worst in at least 500 years”. Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said Europe is currently experiencing a significantly above-average wildfire season and a significant impact on agricultural production. “Climate change is undoubtedly more noticeable every year,” she added. A “severe drought” has been present in many places all year, but has spread and worsened since early August, according to the European Commission report.
The report warned that the situation is worsening in countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The stark warning from researchers follows rapidly falling water levels in rivers across Europe, which have exposed relics of the past like the so-called ‘hunger stones’ warning of potential starvation and the sunken remains of World War II Nazi ships. Besides agriculture, drinking water supply and hydroelectric power, the most visible impact has been on waterways, as Europe relies heavily on rivers to transport goods economically. With water levels dropping to less than a meter in many stretches of several rivers, large vessel traffic has been affected.
Researchers and academics of climate system science claim that hot weather and heat waves are the result of climate change. According to them, it is practically impossible that the heat waves have occurred without the increase in the concentrations of greenhouse gases. “Precipitation is much harder to attribute to climate change, but taken together the type of drought we are experiencing now is much more likely now with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases,” said Nigel Arnell, professor of climate system science. at the University of Reading. Droughts are not uncommon in the Earth’s natural climate system and therefore not uncommon in Europe either. But the severity of this year’s drought, the result of a long dry spell and a prolonged and significant departure from normal weather patterns, is attributed to climate change.
Rainfall was low in several European countries. In the UK, where an official drought has been declared in several areas, this year has been exceptionally dry for 60% of the counties. The situation in other countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands is not much different with 60% of the European continent’s land mass facing agricultural drought. But it’s not just Europe that is experiencing record extreme weather; there has been an upsurge in extreme weather events around the world – heat waves, flash floods, droughts, wildfires, storms, etc. Internationally, researchers and climate experts have attributed this increase in extreme weather events to climate change.
Recently, China experienced an unprecedented temperature rise that resulted in one of the worst heat waves the country has seen in 60 years. Media reports that China is also heading for a severe drought. In the United States, more than 40% of the area would be subject to drought conditions. In South Asia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have experienced an onslaught of torrential rains, flash floods and heat waves this year. As more extreme and intense weather events have increased in recent years, climate experts say understanding the role climate change is playing in these events will help us better prepare for them in the future.
The writer is a top freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He tweets at @ali_chougule
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