Experts Warn Europe’s Drought Could be Worst In 500 Years

(LUX, France) — Once, a river ran through it. Now, white dust and thousands of dead fish cover the wide trench that winds amid rows of trees in France’s Burgundy region in what was the Tille River in the village of Lux.

A drought unprecedented in Europe is currently affecting nearly half the continent. This is threatening agricultural species, hurting farm economies and forcing water restrictions.

In Western and Central Europe, there hasn’t been any significant rain for nearly two months. The government declared drought in southern and central England Friday, amid the most dry and hot summers ever recorded.

And Europe’s dry period is expected to continue in what experts say could be the worst drought in 500 years.

Hotter temperatures accelerate evaporation and thirsty plants absorb more water. In addition, less snowfall during winter reduces the amount of fresh water that is available to be irrigated in summer. Climate change has been a major factor in climate change. Europe isn’t alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States and northern Mexico.

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As he walked in the 15-meter (50-foot) wide riverbed in Lux, Jean-Philippe Couasné, chief technician at the local Federation for Fishing and Protection of the Aquatic Environment, listed the species of fish that had died in the Tille.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “On average, about 8,000 liters ( 2,100 gallons) per second are flowing. … And now, zero liters.”

Some freshwater fish, including trout, can be found upstream in areas with fish ladders. But such systems aren’t available everywhere.

Without rain, the river “will continue to empty. All fish will perish if there is no rain. … They are trapped upstream and downstream, there’s no water coming in, so the oxygen level will keep decreasing as the (water) volume goes down,” Couasné said. “These are species that will gradually disappear.”

Jean-Pierre Sonvico, the regional head of the federation, said diverting the fish to other rivers won’t help because those waterways also are affected by the drought.

“Yes, it’s dramatic because what can we do? Nothing,” he said. “We’re waiting, hoping for storms with rain, but storms are very local so we can’t count on it.”

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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, a senior researcher 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 U.K.,” Toreti said.

According to Peter Hoffmann, a meteorologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Berlin, the current climate is the result long-term dry periods caused by global weather system changes.

“It’s just that in summer we feel it the most,” he said. “But actually the drought builds up across the year.”

According to him, climate change has reduced the temperature difference between regions and sapping those forces that drive jet stream. The jet stream normally delivers wet Atlantic weather from Europe.

Unusually high temperatures can be caused by a weaker or more unstable jet stream. The result is that Europe’s North Africa-bound air becomes hotter, which in turn leads to longer periods of heat. Also, the opposite can be true: A polar vortex that brings cold air from Arctic may cause temperatures to drop far below what it normally would.

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Hoffmann stated that recent observations have been consistent with what climate models had predicted.

Some European countries have imposed water restrictions due to drought, while shipping on the Rhine or Danube is at risk.

The Rhine, Germany’s biggest waterway, could reach critical low levels in the coming days. Bastian Klein of Germany’s Federal Institute of Hydrology stated that the water level near Kaub is expected to drop to 35cm (14inches) Tuesday. These conditions are only suitable for small ships or those with special design, he stated.

“Industries that depend on inland shipping and transport on the Rhine are of course affected, as there’s less transport capacity for raw materials or finished products,” said Klein.

Serbian authorities have begun dredging the Danube to ensure that vessels move.

Near Budapest, large areas of Lake Velence have become patches of dry mud and are now home to small boats. Water quality has declined despite the installation of water circulation equipment and aeration to help wildlife. One beach was closed to swimming on weekends.

Stretches of the Po, Italy’s longest river, are so low that barges and boats that sank decades ago are resurfacing.

According to the Met Office weather bureau, England also suffered from drought. The country had its dryest July in 35 years last month. The absence of rain has led to groundwater drying up, a reduction in reservoirs, and the browning and burning of grasslands.

Millions in the U.K. were already barred from watering lawns and gardens under regional “hosepipe bans,” and 15 million more around London will face such a ban shortly.

U.K. farmers face drought, as they run out irrigation water and have to use winter food for their animals due to a shortage of grass. The Rivers Trust charity said England’s chalk streams — which allow underground springs to bubble up through the spongy layer of rock — are drying up, endangering aquatic wildlife like kingfishers and trout.

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Portugal and Spain are two countries that have been accustomed to rainy periods for a long time. Some avocado farmers in Andalucia had to cut down hundreds of trees because the Vinuela reservoir of Malaga was reduced to 13% capacity.

European farmers use water from the tap to feed their animals when streams and ponds dry out. This can lead to them using as much as 100 litres per day (26 gallons) of water for each cow.

In normally green Burgundy, home to the source of Paris’ Seine River, the grass has turned yellow-brown and tractors churn up giant clouds of dust.

Baptiste Colson is a farmer in Moloy who raises feed crops and owns milk cows. He said that his animals are experiencing drought-related problems, and their milk quality has been declining. According to the 31-year old head of the Young Farmers Union, he was forced to take a dip in his winter feedstuff in August.

“That is the biggest concern,” Colson said.

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 S&P Global Commodity Insights.

Colson predicts that corn yields will drop by at least 30%, which could be a problem feeding his cattle.

“We know we’ll have to buy food … so the cows can continue producing milk,” he said. “From an economic point of view, the cost will be high.”

Dana Beltaji Jill LawlessLondon Frank JordansBerlin Barry HattonLisbon, Portugal Ciarán GilesMadrid Dusan StojanovicBelgrade (Serbia) Bela SzandelszkyBudapest, Hungary contributed to the creation of this report.

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