European drought dries up rivers, kills fish, shrivels crops
LUX, France (AP) — Once, a river ran through it. Now, white dust and thousands of dead fish cover the wide trench that winds amid rows of trees in France’s Burgundy region in what was the Tille River in the village of Lux.
From dry and cracked reservoirs in Spain to falling water levels on major arteries like the Danube, the Rhine and the Po, an unprecedented drought is afflicting nearly half of the European continent. It is damaging farm economies, forcing water restrictions, causing wildfires and threatening aquatic species.
There has been no significant rainfall for almost two months in Western, Central and Southern Europe. In typically rainy Britain, the government officially declared a drought across southern and central England on Friday amid one of the hottest and driest summers on record.
And Europe’s dry period is expected to continue in what experts say could be the worst drought in 500 years.
Hotter temperatures speed up evaporation and thirsty plants take in more moisture and reduced snowfall in the winter limits supplies of fresh water available for irrigation in the summer. Europe isn’t alone in the crisis, with drought conditions also reported in East Africa, the western United States and northern Mexico.
As he walked in the 15-meter (50-foot) wide riverbed in Lux, Jean-Philippe Couasné, chief technician at the local Federation for Fishing and Protection of the Aquatic Environment, listed the species of fish that had died in the Tille.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “On average, about 8,000 liters ( 2,100 gallons) per second are flowing… And now, zero liters.”
In areas upstream, some trout and other freshwater species can take shelter in pools via fish ladders. But such systems aren’t available everywhere.
Without rain, the river “will continue to empty. And yes, all fish will die… They are trapped upstream and downstream, there’s no water coming in, so the oxygen level will keep decreasing as the (water) volume goes down,” Couasné said. “These are species that will gradually disappear.”
The European Commission’s Joint Research Center warned this week that drought conditions will get worse and potentially affect 47% of the continent.
The current situation is the result of long periods of dry weather caused by changes in world weather systems, said meteorologist Peter Hoffmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research near Berlin.
“It’s just that in summer we feel it the most,” he said. “But actually the drought builds up across the year.”
A weaker or unstable jet stream can result in unusually hot air coming to Europe from North Africa, leading to prolonged periods of heat. The reverse is also true, when a polar vortex of cold air from the Arctic can cause freezing conditions far south of where it would normally reach.
Hoffmann said observations in recent years have all been at the upper end of what the existing climate models predicted.
The drought is also hitting U.K. farmers, who face running out of irrigation water and having to use winter feed for animals because of a lack of grass. The Rivers Trust charity said England’s chalk streams — which allow underground springs to bubble up through the spongy layer of rock — are drying up, endangering aquatic wildlife like kingfishers and trout.
Even countries like Spain and Portugal, which are used to long periods without rain, have seen major consequences.
Some European farmers are using water from the tap for their livestock when ponds and streams go dry, using up to 100 litres (26 gallons) a day per cow.
31-year-old Baptiste Colson, who owns dairy cows and grows feed crops, said his animals are suffering in the drought, with the quality and quantity of their milk decreasing.
EU corn production is expected to be 12.5 million tons below last year and sunflower production is projected to be 1.6 million tons lower, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Colson expects at least a 30% drop in corn yields, a major problem for feeding his cows.
“We know we’ll have to buy food … so the cows can continue producing milk,” he said. “From an economic point of view, the cost will be high.”