400 million people in Europe could be affected by more severe droughts if global temperatures rise by 3°C, according to a team of international scientists. The team warned that droughts will become more frequent and last longer if global warming exceeds the 1.5°C limit set by the Paris Agreement, with potentially severe impacts on agriculture and the economy.
The study was led by scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Germany and published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. Using mathematical models, the team evaluated the impacts of global temperature rise on soil moisture conditions in Europe.
Currently, 13% of Europe’s total area is considered to be at risk for drought. The study found that if global temperature increases by 3°C, this figure would double, with more than a quarter of the continent becoming at risk.
With three degrees of warming, there would be nearly six drought months in Europe each year, said study author Dr Luis Samaniego, a hydrologist at UFZ. Dr Samaniego added that until now, there have only been around two drought months a year in Europe.
Southern Europe would be particularly impacted, according to researchers. In the most extreme cases, nearly half of the Mediterranean region would be affected by drought.
“For some parts of the Iberian Peninsula, we project that the drought could even last more than seven months,” warned Dr Samaniego.
The research found that the effects would not be as severe if the Paris Agreement objectives are met. If global warming is limited to 1.5°C, scientists estimate the Mediterranean region would experience around three drought months each year.
Even if global temperatures were to rise by 3°C, most regions in Europe would not be hit as hard as the Mediterranean area.
“In the Atlantic, Continental and Alpine regions, the drought areas will enlarge by less than ten percent of the total area,” explained mathematician Stephan Thober of UFZ, who co-authored the study.
Thober added that although Germany would experience drier summers, overall the consequences would be relatively minor. In contrast, since precipitation in Scandinavia and the Baltic states is projected to increase due to climate change, these regions would see a slight decrease in areas affected by drought.
The projected environmental changes are also expected to negatively impact water content in European soils. If temperatures rise by three degrees, each square kilometre of land would lose 35,000 cubic metres of available water, according to Thober.
Parts of Europe experienced a similar water deficit during a drought in the summer of 2003. Researchers warned that events of this magnitude – once considered extreme – would become more commonplace, with extreme drought events in the future far surpassing these conditions.
“This will have great implications for agriculture, forestry, water supply and tourism,” Dr Samaniego told the Daily Mail.
Researchers urged policymakers to take action in order to prevent these types of droughts from occurring and to minimise the negative impacts on society and the economy.
“The effects of global warming can be reduced in part with some technical adjustments. However, these are costly,” explained Samaniego. He and his colleagues instead recommended implementing the Paris Agreement’s climate protection goals, saying these would help limit the negative impacts on droughts in Europe.
“If the models are right, we should start thinking about how to adapt and mitigate these changes. The time to act is now,” Dr Samaniego told the Daily Mail.