Almost half of the EU remains under drought conditions, an EU agency has said, with the weather set to remain hotter and drier until November.
This will compound fears about crop shortages and energy supply in a continent already hit by a significant reduction in gas flows from Russia.
“The combination of a severe drought and heatwaves has created an unprecedented stress on water levels in the entire EU. We are currently noticing a wildfires season . . . above the average and an important impact on crops production,” said Mariya Gabriel, EU commissioner for research and innovation.
“Severe-to-extreme” drought conditions are evident in Italy, south-eastern and north-western France, eastern Germany, eastern Europe, southern Norway and large parts of the Balkans, according to a report published on Tuesday by the EU’s Joint Research Centre.
It said about 47 per cent of the EU was under drought warning conditions and 17 per cent in drought “alert”, which meant vegetation and crops had been affected. The report also warned of the “severe impacts” on the energy sector, particularly for hydropower plants which are unable to function, and the cooling systems of other power plants.
This summer has been one of the driest on record in Europe, which scientists have said is warming faster than the global average. Forest fires have spread rapidly across the continent, burning more than 4.6 times the average area of land of the past 19 years of forest fire seasons, while the Alps’ glaciers have melted at a record pace.
The mean annual temperature over the European land mass in the past decade has been about 2C warmer than during the pre-industrial period, according to a European Environment Agency report published in June, compared with about a 1C average globally.
The UK too has been gripped by a sustained period of hot and dry weather, which pushed England into a formal state of drought in August. The government on Tuesday announced 10 of 14 regions had entered drought status, adding that the recent rainfall had not been enough to replenish rivers, groundwater and reservoirs to “normal levels”.
Such extreme lack of water and heat stress to plants has reduced forecasts for this year’s summer harvest in Europe, with crops worst affected including maize, sunflowers and soyabeans. Yield forecasts for these crops are between 12 and 16 per cent below the five-year average, the JRC data showed.
It has also exacerbated energy supply problems across the continent. Hydroelectric dams have dried up in countries such as Portugal and in Norway, prompting the EU’s second-largest supplier of natural gas after Russia to warn that it may have to curb energy exports if the situation does not improve.
Energy generation from nuclear power stations has also had to be reduced because of a lack of water to cool the reactors.
The JRC report, which is based on data from the European Drought Observatory, warned warmer and drier conditions could last well into the autumn in the western Mediterranean. A return to more normal weather “for most of Europe” could “not be enough to fully recover the deficit [of water] cumulated in more than half a year”, it said.
The scientists added that “severely drier than normal weather conditions” were predicted to last over western Spain, eastern Portugal and along the Croatian coast.
The impact of forest fires has been particularly acute in Portugal, where the JRC said the hazard of fires was “high-to-extreme over most of the country”.
Brussels on Tuesday said it had deployed two firefighting aircraft for the first time to help Portugal fight forest fires in the north of the country.
Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson in London
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