`Study: Multi-Year Droughts Will Significantly Impact European Agriculture This Century - Olive Oil Times

Study: Multi-Year Droughts Will Significantly Impact European Agriculture This Century 

By Paolo DeAndreis
May. 1, 2022 14:30 UTC

The lat­est multi-year drought in Europe (from 2018 to 2020) was the worst such event since 1766, accord­ing to newly-pub­lished research.

The study, pub­lished in Earth’s Future, con­cluded that these droughts are hav­ing a pro­found impact on agri­cul­ture, the envi­ron­ment and local pop­u­la­tions.

What we have to expect in the future are multi-year droughts of the same inten­sity as the 2018 to 2020 event but last­ing way longer. This greatly depends on how global warm­ing will develop. - Oldrich Rakovec, cli­mate researcher, UFZ-Helmholtz Center

The researchers also said that the droughts are increas­ing in length, often stretch­ing for sev­eral con­sec­u­tive years, and are becom­ing more intense.

Researchers from the UFZ-Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and the University of Life Sciences in Prague, iden­ti­fied the 2018 to 2020 drought as a new bench­mark for Europe.

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They said it showed an unprece­dented inten­sity that per­sisted for more than two years, exhibit­ing a mean areal cov­er­age of 35.6 per­cent and an aver­age dura­tion of 12.2 months.”

According to the sci­en­tists, the last European multi-year drought is more rel­e­vant than pre­vi­ous events because of the high sur­face air tem­per­a­tures reported dur­ing its occur­rence. The researchers believe that such tem­per­a­tures add to the evi­dence that cli­mate change exac­er­bates drought events.

One of the most rel­e­vant char­ac­ter­is­tics of a multi-year drought event is its impact on veg­e­ta­tion.

Sometimes, sin­gle-year droughts can be sus­tained by the ecosys­tem, like a for­est,” Oldrich Rakovec, a researcher at the UFZ-Helmholtz Center, told Olive Oil Times. But when there is extreme stress, as the ecosys­tem is exposed to the multi-year drought, the effects can be severe on veg­e­ta­tion and forests and their dynam­ics,”

The sci­en­tists’ analy­sis is based on char­ac­ter­iz­ing anom­alous con­di­tions of root-zone soil mois­ture that reflect the antecedent and con­tem­po­rary hydro-mete­o­ro­logic con­di­tions and con­sti­tutes the pri­mary source of water for plant growth.”

While many data have been gath­ered on sin­gle-year and spe­cific drought phe­nom­ena across Europe, the new research reported how far fewer sig­nif­i­cant stud­ies had been con­ducted on the effects and dynam­ics of multi-year droughts.

The researchers inves­ti­gated the 2018 to 2020 drought’s effects on agri­cul­ture, find­ing sig­nif­i­cant drops in crop yields for the main sta­ple cere­als across the European con­ti­nent: losses of up to 17.5 per­cent for wheat in Germany, 20 to 40 per­cent loss of grain maize in west­ern Europe and around 10 per­cent losses for bar­ley in most coun­tries.

Multi-year droughts also are cru­cial in under­stand­ing cli­mate evo­lu­tion in a global sce­nario char­ac­ter­ized by grow­ing green­house gas emis­sions and the increas­ing occur­rence of extreme weather events.

1766 as a start­ing date for our study is very prac­ti­cal since that is the year our Swiss col­leagues started col­lect­ing cli­mate data based on tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion,” Rakovec said. That allowed us to build a hydro-mete­o­ro­log­i­cal model to peek into past and future ten­den­cies.”

The researchers also men­tioned the lat­est report of the European Commission, which esti­mates the mon­e­tary loss due to drought at €9 bil­lion per annum. The most sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of these losses is related to agri­cul­ture, fol­lowed by the energy sec­tor and the pub­lic water sup­ply sys­tems.

Besides direct finan­cial losses, the nat­ural net ecosys­tem car­bon uptake can be fur­ther sig­nif­i­cantly reduced by drought con­di­tions,” the researchers wrote.

What we have to expect in the future are multi-year droughts of the same inten­sity as the 2018 to 2020 event but last­ing way longer,” Rakovec added. This greatly depends on how global warm­ing will develop.”


Given the cur­rent uncer­tainty on the future global green­house gas emis­sions sce­nario, the researchers based their esti­mates on the two sce­nar­ios used as a com­mon plat­form for cli­mate mod­els, RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5.

The for­mer is con­sid­ered a sta­bi­liza­tion sce­nario that will see green­house gas emis­sions level out and global tem­per­a­tures rise by about 2.4 ºC com­pared to the pre-indus­trial era by 2100. The lat­ter is a worst-case sce­nario where no spe­cial mea­sures are taken to cur­tail green­house gas emis­sions, and by 2100 tem­per­a­ture could rise by 4.3 ºC.

Using the RCP 4.5 sce­nario, the most extreme droughts in the cur­rent cen­tury might last up to 100 months, sev­eral times longer than the 2018 to 2020 bench­mark drought. In the RCP 8.5 sce­nario, droughts could last up to 300 months.

While the mod­er­ate RCP 4.5 emis­sion sce­nario projects the most sig­nif­i­cant drought clus­ters to cover up to 50 per­cent of the entire domain [European con­ti­nent], this areal extent reaches up to 65 per­cent based on the high-emis­sion sce­nar­ios,” the researchers wrote.

The scope of our research was to gather and ana­lyze data rel­a­tive to the whole European con­ti­nent, not to give sug­ges­tions on global mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies,” Rakovec added. But, of course, on a per­sonal level, I would stress the rel­e­vance of wiser sys­tems of water man­age­ment and of pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture to truly tar­get the plant when using water for irri­ga­tion.”

On a global scale, the most rel­e­vant action I can think of is the reduc­tion of the global green­house gas emis­sions,” he said.

The researchers con­cluded that the 2018 to 2020 drought event should be con­sid­ered a wake-up call on agri­cul­tural poli­cies in Europe and the rest of the world.

Multi-year droughts are a global prob­lem,” Rakovec said. As an exam­ple, look at the California drought, a multi-year event which is stretch­ing over 10 years. And that is affect­ing agri­cul­ture and water avail­abil­ity there.”


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