Frequency of Brutal Two-Year Droughts Could Rise Seven-Fold in EU: Study

A graph showing the relation between drought temperatures in 2003, 2018 and 2019 and their impact on vegetation. (UFZ-Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research)

(CN) — The frequency of severe droughts across central Europe, such as the two-year spell that struck the region in 2018, is projected to climb by the end of the century if political leaders don’t drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions, researchers in Germany said in a study released Thursday. 

Anthropogenic climate change, or warming caused by human activity, intensifies droughts across the globe — such as the nearly 20-year ongoing drought in the southwestern United States — and can accelerate moisture loss in soils.

Both the frequency of intense drought periods and the increase in brutal heat waves associated with climate change also severely impedes Earth’s ability to trap greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2018-2019 drought in central Europe impacted at least 50% of the region — which uses more than one third of its land for agriculture — and put a 100 billion-euro dent in the continental economy, making it the largest and most impactful drought on record over a two-year period. 

To understand the historical significance of that drought, researchers with the UFZ-Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany examined long-term global climate data from 1766 to 2019.

Researcher Vittal Hari and colleagues found that both summers were abnormally dry, with dryness levels that were unprecedented in the last 250 years, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Researchers found that the two-year drought had a harsher impact on the region’s agricultural industries than the 2003 drought, which at that time was the worst on record. 

The two summers were also among the three warmest summer periods ever recorded in the region, researchers found.

“The intensity and spatial extent of droughts significantly affects the plant and agricultural productivity underlying the severity of the drought impact in the Central European region, where the focus on agriculture is strong,” the study said, adding that vegetation is still recovering from the parched period. “Thus, it is with the utmost urgency that we need to recognize the importance of these persevering consecutive year events, and to develop a holistic framework to model the risk.”

European Union leaders approved aid packages for farmers who lost crops and farm animals in the two-year spell that saw high temperature records shattered across the region.

Computer-assisted modeling was also used in the study to determine whether the persistence of climate change in coming decades would increase the frequency of two-year droughts.

Researchers also wanted to examine the impact that steady greenhouse gas emissions may have on drought periods. 

When higher greenhouse gas levels were punched into the climate model, researchers found Europe would be on course for a seven-fold increase in the number of two-year droughts between 2051 and 2100.

“The projections also suggested that drought-affected cropland areas across Central Europe will nearly double, including more than 40 million hectares [98.8 million acres] of cultivated land,” said a statement accompanying the study.

When projections were based on moderate greenhouse gas levels, researchers found the number of two-year droughts in Europe would be reduced by almost half, with the frequency of dry spells decreasing by over 90%, the study said.

Drought-prone regions of central Europe reduced by 37% with moderate levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the climate model and by up to 60% with low emissions.

Researchers said in the study their findings indicate that reducing carbon emissions lowers the risk of more frequent droughts across the region.

“Our analysis therefore demonstrates that the occurrences of the consecutive droughts as well their impact on crop and pasture areas can be significantly reduced if the mitigation strategies leading to amendment of global warming are adopted,” the study said. 

Researchers did not immediately respond to an emailed request for further comment on the study. 

%d bloggers like this: