In much of Europe, this April is proving one of the driest in history. In Germany, wildfires are blazing, forests and farmlands are bone dry, and river depth in some areas is a half of what it should be. According to climate scientists, this could be the new normal as global warming enhances the frequency of severe droughts. Farmers though could do more to secure stable harvests: by growing more diverse crops. Paul Hockenos takes a closer look.
Germany’s Forest Fire Index, a map issued by the national weather service, is a dappled collage of reds, oranges and purples: the colors for high levels of fire warning, the kind one might usually see in a particularly hot year in the middle of summer. But this year Germany is already experiencing extremely dry weather – and in North Rhine Westphalia scattered forest fires – in April. The weather service says that the month has thus far experienced just 5% of its usual rainfall and that 2020 could well be another year of severe drought in Germany, perhaps on a par with than those in 2018 and 2019.
The images of the gigantic blazes that swept across southeastern Australia just months ago may have faded in the memories of many with the coronavirus crisis now so forefront in our minds. But the crises of global warming are present and ever more destructive – in Germany and across Europe. Thus far, 2020 is the warmest in Europe in a century: half a degree higher than in 1990, which had held the record until now. Several EU studies indicate that climate change is reducing soil moisture in important grain-growing regions in Europe, and that droughts are likely to become more frequent in the foreseeable future.
“In the Sahara [desert], it is really wet compared to Berlin,” meteorologist Jan Schenk told the weekly Focus. There, April will probably see about 20 liters of rain per square meter, says Schenk, compared to zero liters in Berlin. Particularly in eastern and southern Germany, the drought conditions are already exceptional, he says. “There will hardly be any precipitation until the end of May,” says Schenk. This, he says, will not be enough to head off the worst. If this weather persists through the summer, 2020 could prove drier, hotter, and more damaging than that of 2018.
Signs of another drought year are just about everywhere to see. In the eastern city of Dresden, the water level of the Elbe River is at just 95 cm, less than half of its average. The Elbe was just one of many rivers in Germany in 2018 and 2019 that had to suspend shipping on its waters due to low water levels.
The rainless spring comes on top of a winter that brought too little rain and snow to replenish the ground soil moisture from last year. Germany’s farmers are thus bracing for another catastrophe year. “If it stays this dry, it could be another very difficult year for German agriculture,” Joachim Rukwied, head of the German Farmers’ Association, told the weekly Die Zeit. “A third year of drought in a row would hit many of our companies even harder than the last.” “We urgently need a longer rainstorm so that the plants can develop,” he said.
In 2018, the federal ministry of agriculture paid German farmers €228 million for lost crop income. In 2019, however, it refused to pay a single euro. The ministry says it has its eye on the current situation – and is praying for rain.
Germany’s forestry and lumber industry is also watching on with trepidation. The dry summers of the past eleven years have hurt it badly; the mass infestation of bark beetles, which attack and kill trees by feed on their inner bark layer, have only compounded the problems. that the destruction of Germany’s woodlands is unprecedented in the last one hundred years. In 2018 and 2019, 110,000 hectares of forest – about 300 million trees — were destroyed by the lethal combination of drought, the bark beetles and severe storms.
Across Europe the drought conditions reach from northern France all the way across Central and Northern Europe to the borderlands of Russia. In France, wheat and barley crops are suffering from the driest soil conditions in five years. Europe’s other big grain producers, such as Romania and Ukraine, say that water reserves are at high risk levels across the entire country.
According to the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, global warming will exacerbate soil droughts in Europe: they will last longer, affect greater areas, and have an impact on more people. If global warming rises by three degrees, warns the 2018 study, the drought regions in Europe will expand from 13 percent to 26 percent of the total area compared to the reference period of 1971 to 2000. The duration of the largest droughts in Europe will also last three to four times longer than in the past. Up to 400 million people could then be affected. If efforts are successful in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as stipulated in the Paris Climate Protection Agreement, the drought regions in Europe can be limited to 19 percent of the total area.
Aside from genetically modified crops, such as those the US-American farmers grow, and still more chemical fertilizers, Europe’s farmers have another alternative to stave off ruin. The German agriculture expert Friedhelm Taube of the University of Kiel told Energy Transition that rather than state aid for failed crops, the state should offer incentives for farmers to shift to more diverse crops.
“In northern Germany, farmers have been planting wheat and rapeseed year after year because they yield the most profit. But these simple, specialized crops attract diseases and spoil the ground soil when they’re never varied with other crops,” says Taube. “We have to return to the kind of mixed farming system that existed 20 years ago.” He says that grass for livestock, corn and alfalfa hay are all crops that could grow in northern Germany, and that would complement wheat and rapeseed. These crops, says Taube, have a deep rooting systems that make them less affected by drought and the expert suggests that the EU’s entire agricultural policy must be rethought to encourage more diverse and stable farming systems.
This kind of modification, however, won’t ease the impact of years of more drought should climate change continue to accelerate.