Newsletter XVII - JRC study on the European droughts in 2018: a warning of things to come

A recent study, led by scientists of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), warns that the extreme drought conditions that affected the 2018 spring / summer growing season in central and northern Europe, could become the norm within 25 years, and calls for innovative adaptation measures to deal with extremes (Toreti et al., 2019).

 Climate change poses particular challenges for agricultural production systems as plant growth is affected by climate conditions. Besides heat stress, drought and water excess have been shown to trigger losses when occurring in critical phenological phases. Thus, to reduce the impacts associated with these extreme events at the local scale, agricultural management and planning need to consider them in the development and implementation of risk reduction strategies. 

At the regional scale, the push / pull of droughts in one region and the absence of water stress elsewhere (i.e. the “water seesaw”) can translate into crop yield differentials. Thus, it is key to estimate how often water seesaw conditions have occurred and will occur, and to understand if climate change adaptation strategies for agriculture can count on recurrent water seesaws.

 All of these questions, which are addressed by the JRC study, have been triggered by the extreme climate conditions experienced by Europe in 2018, when the spring and summer months were marked by a unique combination of drought conditions in central and northern Europe, and unusually wet conditions in southern Europe.

For instance, Germany was affected by a six-month drought that lasted the whole spring and summer, while the spring was particularly wet in the Iberian Peninsula. Both extremes affected crop yields. The droughts resulted into total reductions in the main crop yields of up to 50%. This was partially offset by southern Europe’s yield gains of up to 34%.

 This juxtaposition of opposite climate anomalies - i.e. droughts in the northern part of Europe and unusually wet condition in the south - was a unique phenomenon of the last 500 years. Future climate projections, based on high resolution global models, show that southern Europe is less likely to experience such favourably wet conditions for crop growth in the future. On the other hand, droughts similar to those of 2018 could become common as early as 2043.

 Innovative adaptation strategies for European agriculture are therefore urgently needed to cope with recurrent drought events that are unlikely to benefit from the unusual “water seesaw” pattern seen in 2018. Projections show that the climate is getting hotter and more extremes are going to occur. 

Last year, Europe got lucky with unusually wet conditions in southern Europe that mitigated the drought effects on overall food production. However, we can’t count on such anomalies to ensure food security in the future. Last year was a wake-up call. There is an urgent need scientifically to improve risk and impact assessment by considering these recurrent / concurrent events, and the shocks they can cause, and thus design new adaptation strategies to cope with them.

 This report is based on a news article published on 17 June 2019 on the JRC’s web-site (see web-link below).

Andrea Toreti
European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

For more information:

For more information:
Toreti, A., A. Belward, I. Perez-Dominguez, G. Naumann, J. Luterbacher, O. Cronie, L. Seguini, G. Manfron, R. Lopez-Lozano, B. Baruth, M. van den Berg, F. Dentener, A. Ceglar, T. Chatzopoulos, and M. Zampieri. 2019. The exceptional 2018 European water seesaw calls for action on adaptation. Earth’s Future, 7 (6): 652–663.

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