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Extreme drought is gripping Europe, intensifying heat and fueling fires

Aug. 11, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 11, 2022 at 1:34 p.m.

By Matthew Cappucci Washington Post

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

Months of scant rainfall and above-average temperatures have entrenched the region in drought, the worst on record in some countries. It is intensifying heat waves and boosting the danger posed by wildfires, all the while wreaking havoc on crops and having a serious impact on the economy.

According to the European Drought Observatory, nearly half of Europe is under “warning” conditions, which connote a severe drought and a major soil moisture deficit. An additional 17% of Europe has reached the threshold at which vegetation suffers, in some cases dying out or thinning.

Far and wide, farmers have been struggling to grapple with the arid conditions.

The attached map 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 the brown-shaded regions, meaning there’s little groundwater available to evaporate in the first place.

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

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

During July, southern parts of Britain, including London, received only 10% to 20% of their average rainfall, and in some cases next to nothing. London picked up barely a millimeter of rainfall (0.04 inches), compared to an average of 45 millimeters (1.77 inches).

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

The U.K. Met Office confirmed that it was southern England’s driest July on record and the driest July countrywide since 1935.

Comparing satellite imagery of the land 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 nation’s meteorological service, issued a bulletin stating the country had seen its driest July on record, with total precipitation about 85% below average.

Amid the drought, water shortages have become prevalent in Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Some major rivers - like the Rhine in Germany - are becoming precariously shallow. Reuters reports that freight shipping costs on the Rhine have more than quintupled, and many larger vessels have been reduced to carrying only 30% to 40% of their capacity - otherwise they face the risk of running aground.

The Rhine is Germany’s main artery for shipping, and any disruptions will have ripple effects on the whole of Europe. According to Reuters, some economists fear that a half percentage drop in Germany’s GDP could result from the shipping hurdles.

A similar hydrological issue has been causing problems in Italy, where the Po River is facing what the prime minister described as the “most serious water crisis in 70 years.” In early July, Italy declared an emergency in five of the most heavily-affected regions. Seventeen million people, about a third of Italy’s population, live in the river’s basin.

About 41% of the Po River basin is used for agriculture, which sustains 3.1 million head of cattle (half the country’s stock) and 6 million pigs (nearly two thirds of the national stock), according to data published by the European Commission. The drought has reduced crop yields by 30% in Italy, slashing what’s already a lackluster harvest since farmers planted less because of rising costs stemming from the war in Ukraine.

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Wildfire erupting in western Europe

In addition to shrinking reservoirs, the lack of rainfall and blistering heat is helping bolster wildfire risk across Europe. A new wildfire formed near Bordeaux, France on Thursday afternoon, prompting 10,000 residents to evacuate. The BBC reported that a thousand firefighters were actively involved in combating the blaze, which is one of many to crop up across France and the Iberian Peninsula since early July.

The fire risk is currently elevated over large areas of western Europe because of yet another heat wave gripping the region through the weekend, with projected highs topping 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in central and southern France.

Copernicus, a climate monitoring service associated with the European Union, simulates growing fire danger across western Europe in the years ahead as temperatures continue to increase.

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The roles of weather and climate

The drought is both a cause and effect of the extremely hot summer that has plagued Europe so far. July was the continent’s 6th warmest on record; June was the second warmest.

The hotter weather dries out the landscape, which dries the atmosphere, in turn making the air easier to heat up. That cycle is extremely difficult to break, particularly when the overarching weather pattern favors ridging, or the establishment of broad high pressure, over Europe. That high pressure “heat dome” deflects inclement weather, including rain, to the north, allowing Europe to bake beneath inescapable sunshine and anomalous warmth.

It’s well-established that human-caused climate change is amplifying the intensity, frequency and duration of heat events, and is also exacerbating the severity and impacts of drought. The U.K. Met Office announced that mid-July’s record-shattering heat wave, during which over 40 weather stations soared past the U.K.’s previous record high temperature, was made about 10 times more likely to reach that magnitude because of climate change.

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