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This is Europe’s worst drought in 500 years

The European Drought Observatory says the western Europe-Mediterranean region was likely to experience warmer and drier than normal conditions until November.

August 24, 2022
By Philip Blenkinsop
24 August 2022

Europe is facing its worst drought in at least 500 years, with two-thirds of the continent in a state of alert or warning, reducing inland shipping, electricity production and the yields of certain crops, a European Union agency said on Tuesday.

The August report of the European Drought Observatory (EDO), overseen by the European Commission, said 47 per cent of Europe is under warning conditions, with clear deficit of soil moisture, and 17 per centin a state of alert, in which vegetation is affected.

“The severe drought affecting many regions of Europe since the beginning of the year has been further expanding and worsening as of early August,” the report said, adding that the western Europe-Mediterranean region was likely to experience warmer and drier than normal conditions until November.

Much of Europe has faced weeks of baking temperatures this summer, which worsened the drought, caused wildfires, set off health warnings, and prompted calls for more action to tackle climate change.

The current drought appeared to be the worst in at least 500 years, assuming final data at the end of the season confirmed the preliminary assessment, the Commission said in a statement.

Summer crops have suffered, with 2022 yields for grain maize set to be 16% below the average of the previous five years and soybean and sunflowers yields set to fall by 15% and 12% respectively.

Hydropower generation has been hit, with further impact on other power producers due to a shortage of water to feed cooling systems.

Low water levels have hampered inland shipping, such as along the Rhine, with reduced shipping loads affecting coal and oil transport.

The EDO said mid-August rainfall may have alleviated conditions, but in some cases it had come with thunderstorms that caused further damage.

The observatory’s drought indicator is derived from measurements of precipitation, soil moisture and the fraction of solar radiation absorbed by plants for photosynthesis.

Sunken ships exposed on dry riverbeds

The wreck of the wooden cargo ship “De Hoop 1” which sank in 1985 next to the Rhine River. The drought has caused water levels on the Rhine to fall to alarming levels. Lars Baron/Getty Images

Weeks of baking drought across Europe have seen water levels in rivers and lakes fall to levels few can remember, exposing long-submerged treasures – and some unwanted hazards.

In Spain, suffering its worst drought in decades, archaeologists have been delighted by the emergence of a prehistoric stone circle dubbed the “Spanish Stonehenge” that is usually covered by the waters of a dam.

Officially known as the Dolmen of Guadalperal, the stone circle currently sits fully exposed in one corner of the Valdecanas reservoir, in the central province of Caceres, where authorities say the water level has dropped to 28% of capacity.

It was discovered by German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier in 1926, but the area was flooded in 1963 in a rural development project under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Since then it has only become fully visible four times.

Memories of past droughts have also been rekindled in Germany by the reappearance of so-called “hunger stones” along the River Rhine. Many such stones have become visible along the banks of Germany’s largest river in recent weeks.

Bearing dates and people’s initials, their re-emergence is seen by some as a warning and reminder of the hardships people faced during former droughts. Dates visible on stones seen in Worms, south of Frankfurt, and Rheindorf, near Leverkusen, included 1947, 1959, 2003 and 2018.

Another of Europe’s mighty rivers, the Danube, has fallen to one of its lowest levels in almost a century as a result of the drought, exposing the hulks of more than 20 German warships sunk during World War Two near Serbia’s river port town of Prahovo.

The vessels were among hundreds scuttled along the Danube by Nazi Germany’s Black Sea fleet in 1944 as they retreated from advancing Soviet forces, and still hamper river traffic during low water levels.

Italy has declared a state of emergency for areas around the River Po, and in late July a previously submerged 450-kg (1,000-pound) World War Two bomb was discovered in the low-running waters of the country’s longest river.

Around 3,000 people living near the northern village of Borgo Virgilio, close to the city of Mantua, were evacuated while military experts defused and carried out a controlled explosion of the U.S.-manufactured device earlier this month.

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