Europe's dry February - and the threat of a full-blown summer drought

The lack of rainfall is breaking records - and the continent's soil could pay the price later this year

A drought dried up lakes in France last summer and the winter has brought a renewed dry spell. AFP
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For Europe’s citizens, it never rains but it pours.

A winter of mild weather helped them withstand rocketing energy prices and stave off a worst-case economic meltdown in Europe.

But their days of discipline and awareness campaigns may not yet be over, as that same unseasonable weather prompts fears of a summer drought.

Western Europe is emerging from a peculiarly dry February.

France went a record 32 days without rainfall, while snow was unusually scarce in the Alps and Pyrenees.

In England, it was the driest February for 30 years and the eighth-driest since records began in 1836.

Meanwhile in Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni summoned ministers on Wednesday to discuss what her government called a “water crisis”.

Hydrologists say the lack of rainfall has taken its toll on soil still recovering from a drought last summer.

Much of Europe lived through extreme temperatures last summer and saw water levels plunge in rivers and reservoirs.

It brought freight to a standstill on major European rivers and affected crop yields for farmers, doing nothing to ease a food crisis linked to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Now, as the winter “recharging period” comes to an end in the Northern Hemisphere, there are warnings that water levels have not recuperated and that one hot, dry spell is all it would take for another drought.

The UK’s dry February coincided with mild temperatures and was caused by high pressure over Britain, which stopped wetter weather arriving from the Atlantic, said Oli Claydon of the Met Office.

“It hasn’t been consistent everywhere across Europe, but generally speaking there have been fairly blocked conditions with that high pressure keeping things relatively benign and settled,” he said.

Britain recorded less than half (45 per cent) of its typical February rainfall, with conditions especially dry in Essex in the east of England (8 per cent).

The dry spell is expected to give way to light snow early this month, but there are drought fears for the summer despite reservoirs refilling between September and January.

It is a growing concern around the world. An estimated 700 million people could be displaced by drought by 2030, European Parliament member Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana said, citing UN figures.

By 2040 one in four children could live in areas of extreme water shortage, and 10 years later, drought may affect more than three quarters of the world’s population, she said.

A UN meeting in Geneva was separately told that demand for water would exceed supply by 40 per cent by the end of this decade.

In France, the current situation is not helped by a lack of mountain snow that will eventually mean less melted water in the rivers.

Ski slopes were forced to close in January due to a lack of snow, after Switzerland rang in the New Year with 19.3°C weather before the sun had even risen.

Sandbanks have reappeared in France's Loire River due to the lack of winter rain. Reuters

France’s long rainless streak made February the 16th month in the past 19 in which it has had below-average rainfall.

As a result, French soil is as dry as forecasters would normally expect in April rather than February, strangling its recovery from the extreme conditions of last summer.

The winter “usually allows soils to soak up moisture, groundwater and rivers to return to their usual levels”, said French national weather agency Meteo France.

“The situation could therefore still change, especially in March. The rainfall for the next three months will therefore be decisive.”

In Italy, the Venice gondolas have been left stranded in dried-out canals because of persistent low water levels.

The Po river, winding from the Alps to the Adriatic, has 61 per cent less water than usual for this time of year, an environmental group said last week.

Ms Meloni’s government agreed on Wednesday to set up a new “control room” at her office to prepare for a water crisis.

An “extraordinary commissioner” will be appointed to execute a drought battle plan, echoing a similar role that was set up for the Covid-19 crisis.

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Italians will also be urged to use water responsibly — just as the need for energy-saving becomes somewhat less acute.

France likewise “needs to do on water what we have done on energy”, President Emmanuel Macron recently said.

In Britain, hosepipe bans continued through the winter in some areas and could be widened in the event of a summer drought.

Experts at the National Drought Group are drawing up worst-case plans and warning that Britain “cannot rely on the weather alone”.

Summer temperatures are heading relentlessly upwards as a result of climate change, with the UK reaching 40°C last year for the first time on record.

The pattern is less clear with rainfall and is especially hard to predict in Britain, with its variable weather and position on the edge of Europe and the Atlantic. But the trend is likely to be towards the extremes.

“With temperature, there is a clearer linear progression in terms of an increase in extremes,” Mr Claydon told The National.

“It is less clear in terms of the changes of rainfall over time as a consequence of climate change. However, broadly speaking, we do expect to see hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters.”

And for those hoping this summer will be the last of their problems, European officials have already been warned another scramble for energy supplies next winter.

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Updated: March 05, 2023, 7:48 PM