Climate change made ‘summer drought 20 times more likely in Northern Hemisphere’

The experts said if humans had not warmed the planet, the drought in the Northern Hemisphere would only have been expected around once in 400 years.

Nilima Marshall
Wednesday 05 October 2022 22:00 BST
Drought led to widespread shortages and crop failures (Ben Birchall/PA)
Drought led to widespread shortages and crop failures (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

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Climate change caused temperatures to soar during the summer this year creating soil conditions that made drought at least 20 times more likely in the Northern Hemisphere, according to a new study.

Analysis revealed greenhouse gas emissions played a key role in the warming, making the summer of 2022 one of the hottest ever recorded in Europe.

The scientists calculated that a drought like this can be expected around once in 20 years in today’s climate, which has been warmed 1.2C by emissions.

We need to phase-out the burning of fossil fuels if we want to stabilise climate conditions and avoid a further worsening of these drought events

Professor Sonia Seneviratne

The experts said if humans had not warmed the planet the drought in the Northern Hemisphere would only have been expected around once in 400 years or less.

In Europe, this drought would have occurred around once in 60-80 years, they added.

Sonia Seneviratne, professor at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, said: “We need to phase-out the burning of fossil fuels if we want to stabilise climate conditions and avoid a further worsening of these drought events, which will become more frequent and more intense with any additional increase of global warming.”

More than 24,000 heat-related deaths were recorded in the continent this year, while European fires were the worst on record.

The resulting drought led to widespread water shortages and crop failures with impacts on electricity supply.

Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute – climate change and the environment, Imperial College London, said: “In Europe, drought conditions led to reduced harvests.

“This was particularly worrying as it followed a climate change fuelled heatwave in South Asia that also destroyed crops and happened at a time when global food prices were already extremely high due to the war in Ukraine.”

An international team of climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution group analysed soil moisture levels in June, July and August 2022, across a large part of the Northern Hemisphere.

They focused on the moisture levels for the top 7cm of soil, to measure surface drought, as well as for the top 100cm.

The top 100cm, known as the root zone, is important for crops as it is where plants extract water.

Soil moisture dryness in this region of the soil is often referred to as agricultural and ecological drought.

The scientists also analysed weather data and computer simulations to compare the climate as it is today with the climate of 1800s.

Based on the findings, the experts estimate human-induced climate change made the surface drought at least five times more likely and the agricultural and ecological drought at least 20 times more likely.

In Europe, the researchers said warming made surface drought about five to six times more likely and agricultural and ecological drought about three to four times more likely.

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