Record ice melt and drought conditions blight Europe

Crops expected to be hit hard by lack of rainfall, climate report warns

A glacier cave at the Sardona glacier in Vaettis, Switzerland, which was revealed after glacial ice melted. AP
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Europe will soon see the cost of climate change as drought conditions are expected to hit food production this year, according to the latest Copernicus report.

The report comes after the Alps lost a record amount of ice.

Alpine ski resorts were forced to close due to a lack of winter snow earlier this year as much of Europe experienced unusually warm weather.

The sixth annual European State of the Climate (ESOTC) report, published on Thursday by the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), reveals that low rainfall and high temperatures have led to widespread droughts across the continent.

Samantha Burgess, deputy director at C3S, said crop production is likely to be affected this year.

“In terms of what we have seen over the last few months, winter and spring have been warmer in large parts and drier than average and this has implications for water going into the growing season,” she said.

“We have already seen reports of water stress in Mediterranean countries, Spain in particular, and unless we have significant precipitation, significant spring rainfall, the probability is there will be below average water availability in southern European countries over the spring and summer.

“If we have a wet May it will improve the situation significantly, but the soil moister maps are incredibly dry. If we get moisture back that will benefit reservoirs but unfortunately the impacts are probably already in place for the growing season and we are likely to see reduced crop production because of the dry winter and spring period.”

The report reveals that Europe experienced its hottest summer and second warmest year on record last year, and temperatures are rising at twice the global average rate — faster than any other continent.

The data shows that the temperature increases have been compounded by several extreme events including intense heatwaves, drought conditions and extensive wildfires.

“The report highlights alarming changes to our climate, including the hottest summer ever recorded in Europe, marked by unprecedented marine heatwaves in the Mediterranean Sea and record-breaking temperatures in Greenland," Carlo Buontempo, director of C3S, said.

"Understanding the climate dynamics in Europe is crucial for our efforts to adapt and mitigate the negative impacts climate change has on the continent.”

The average temperature in Europe for the latest five-year period was about 2.2°C above the pre-industrial era (1850-1900), the data shows.

Other findings included:

  • Southern Europe experienced up to 100 days of heat stress, where temperatures felt like 32C
  • Droughts caused by low rainfall affected more than a third of Europe
  • Two thirds of Europe’s rivers were lower than average
  • Record summer heat caused thousands of deaths

One of the most significant events affecting Europe last year was widespread drought. During the winter of 2021-2022, much of Europe experienced fewer snow days than average, with many areas recording up to 30 fewer days.

Last spring, precipitation was below average across much of the continent, with May seeing the lowest precipitation on record for the month.

The lack of winter snow and the high summer temperatures resulted in a record loss of ice from glaciers in the Alps.

The low precipitation, which continued throughout summer, together with the exceptional heatwaves, also caused a widespread and prolonged drought that affected several sectors, such as agriculture, river transport and energy, the report says.

The annual soil moisture anomaly was the second lowest in the past 50 years with only isolated areas recording wetter-than-average soil moisture conditions. Furthermore, river flow for Europe was the second lowest on record, the sixth year in a row with below-average flows.

In terms of the area affected, last year was the driest year on record, with 63 per cent of Europe’s rivers recording lower-than-average flows.

During 2022, Greenland also experienced extreme climate conditions, including exceptional heat and rainfall in September, a time of year when snow is more typical.

The report says average temperatures for the month were up to 8°C higher than average (the highest on record), and the island was affected by three different heatwaves.

This combination caused record ice sheet melt, with at least 23 per cent of the ice sheet affected at the peak of the first heatwave.

Dr Mauro Facchini, head of Earth Observation at the Directorate General for Defence Industry and Space at the European Commission, says the report is a wake-up call.

“Everyone can see what the effects are of climate change,” he said.

“We have seen the heatwaves over the summer but also extending beyond summer, droughts and glazier loss in the Alps. These impacts are longer and more frequent. We really need to look at how we can introduce mitigation measures.

“The climate crisis has become a major concern for the entire world. The reports highlights some concerning trends in 2022. It was another record breaking year for greenhouse gases, wildfires temperature extremes and precipitation. We are really going into unchartered territory. Our climate is changing and we must work together to reduce greenhouse gases. Let’s take this report as yet another wake-up call.”

Updated: April 20, 2023, 9:32 AM