Europe's Drought Is Probably Worse Than You Think

Rivers are drying up and farmers are suffering in dry spell that is the worst in centuries
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 14, 2022 4:35 PM CDT
Europe's Drought Could Be Worst in 500 Years
A motorcycle drives through the lavender fields of Valensole during a hot day in southern France, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.   (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

(Newser) – From dry and cracked reservoirs in Spain to falling water levels on major arteries like the Danube, the Rhine, and the Po, an unprecedented drought is afflicting nearly half of the European continent, the AP reports. It is damaging farm economies, forcing water restrictions, causing wildfires, and threatening aquatic species. There has been no significant rainfall for almost two months in Western, Central, and Southern Europe. And the dry period is expected to continue in what experts say could be the worst drought in 500 years.

  • Climate change. Climate change is exacerbating conditions as hotter temperatures speed up evaporation, thirsty plants take in more moisture, and reduced snowfall in the winter limits supplies of fresh water available for irrigation in the summer. Europe isn't alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States, and northern Mexico.
  • It's set to get worse. The European Commission’s Joint Research Center warned this week that drought conditions will get worse and potentially affect 47% of the continent. Andrea Toreti, at the European Drought Observatory, said a drought in 2018 was so extreme that there were no similar events for the last 500 years, "but this year, I think, it is really worse." For the next three months, "we see still a very high risk of dry conditions over Western and Central Europe, as well as the UK,” Toreti said.

  • Jet stream is getting weaker. The current situation is the result of long periods of dry weather caused by changes in world weather systems, says meteorologist Peter Hoffmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin. "It’s just that in summer we feel it the most," he says. "But actually the drought builds up across the year." Climate change has lessened the temperature differences between regions, sapping the forces that drive the jet stream, which normally brings wet Atlantic weather to Europe, he says. A weaker or unstable jet stream can result in unusually hot air coming to Europe from North Africa, leading to prolonged periods of heat.
  • River shipping is endangered. The drought has caused some European countries to impose restrictions on water usage, and shipping is endangered on the Rhine and the Danube. The Rhine could reach critical low levels in the coming days, making the transport of goods including coal and gasoline—increasingly difficult. On the Danube, authorities in Serbia have started dredging sand to deepen the waterway and keep vessels moving smoothly. Stretches of the Po, Italy's longest river, are so low that barges and boats that sank decades ago are resurfacing.
  • Farmers are suffering. Even in countries like Spain and Portugal, which are used to long periods without rain, there have been major consequences. In the Spanish region of Andalucia, some avocado farmers have had to sacrifice hundreds of trees to save others from wilting as the Vinuela reservoir in Malaga province dropped to only 13% of capacity, down 55% from a year ago. Some European farmers are using water from the tap for their livestock in areas where ponds and streams have gone dry, using up to 26 gallons a day per cow. EU corn production is expected to be 12.5 million tons below last year and sunflower production is projected to be 1.6 million tons lower, according to a report from S&P Global Commodity Insights.
(Read more drought stories.)

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