The climate crisis dries out Europe

Many countries around Europe, especially Central Europe, sound the alarm. Ground water levels and soil moisture are on a historic low threatening agriculture and ecosystems. Germany is facing the third year of droughts and heat waves and ground water levels continue to drop. Poland might experience a drop of grain yield by 8%. Ukraine´s and Romania´s water reserves are drying out. In the Czech Republic, drought was recorded in 80% of its wells. And we can see the consequences with our bare eyes. Water levels in lakes and rivers reach new historic lows. Fields are either irrigated more and fall dry. And the devastating state of some forests can be seen on first sight. Some climatologists call this the worst drought in Europe of the last 500 years.

The maps show that both ground water level and soil moisture are much below average in most of Europe. Many regions even show the darkest tone of red, which means that the current condition only occurs every 50 years on average.

Central Europe drier than for centuries

This drought hit Central Europe especially hard. The currently widespread spruce monocultures are already considered a phase-out model by most experts. But even beeches, the native dominant tree species in most areas and a flagship species for Central Europe, suffer from the heat. The damages amongst native tree species including pine and silver fir, are more serious than expected. Shed leaves, thinned out canopies and dead trees are a common sight all around. And many foresters are clueless what to do. The species they considered future-proof are dying and foreign species are not well enough tested yet.

“In recent years, Central Europe has experienced a series of droughts caused by exceptionally stable weather patterns and high temperatures that can both be linked to climate change. The fact that some regions have experienced drought conditions in several consecutive years has already caused significant damage to forests (due to bark beetle infestation) and declines in groundwater levels.”

Wolfgang Wagner
Remote sensing scientist at Technische Universität Wien

Droughts kill our forests

The drought and heat wave across Europe is also causing forest fires. After the last two years have brought fires of historical scale around the world, 2020 might become another ‘year of fire’. Large fires have recently occured in France, Ukraine and Greece. And in Siberia the situation is worse than ever expected. With 38°C, the temperature hit an all time record in Siberia and in some areas, the first half of 2020 was incredible 9°C warmer than average. This has caused massive forest fires again, after the whole arctic area already saw unprecedented fires in 2018 and 2019. Over a million hectares of forest , the size of Cyprus, have already burned in Siberia this summer. Fires of this size release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and thus speed up the climate crisis even more.

Forest Fire Treuebrietzen Brandenburg-22591.JPG - © European Wilderness Society CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
The leftovers after a forest fire in Treuebrietzen, East Germany

Even if forests are not burning, the heat and drought can destroy them. In some forests in Europe, 97% of trees show damages caused by drought. Especially artificial spruce monocultures are not only threatened by the direct effects of drought, but also the widespread infestation with bark beetles, which is an indirect result of drought and heat stress. This issue could not be more serious. The EU´2030 Climate Framework and many national strategies for lowering emission depend on the ability of forests to store carbon. Hence, the EU Biodiversity Strategy promises the planting of 3 billion trees in Europe. But droughts decrease the carbon capture ability of forests and can even reverse the effect.

What can we do?

This shows three things. Firstly, that the climate crisis already also has devastating effects. These widespread droughts and heatwaves around Europe are no coincident, but a direct consequence of our greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, that we cannot just wait and hope for the best. And lastly, that we have to do everything to keep global warming as low as possible.

We are just at the beginning of the climate crisis and if we continue our current lifestyle and economy, dying forests will become the new normal. Dropping levels of ground water will diminish agriculture everywhere. Many researchers work on the ‘forest and agriculture the of future’. They test new crops and tree species and examine their drought resistence. But especially in forestry, it will still last decades until the ‘forest of the future’ exists in reality. While research started a long time ago, many forestry stakeholders only looked at their short-term revenue and ignored the looming future. The last three years show that we cannot lose anymore time to transform agriculture and forestry to withstand the climate crisis. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions have to be cut drastically right now, otherwise it might already be too late for any other measures.

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