The summer drought suffered by the northern hemisphere was made 20 times more likely by climate breakdown, fuelling hotter temperatures that parched soils across an enormous area of the globe, a new study has found.
A drought like this summer’s, which drove crop failures and water and energy shortages, would have struck around once in every 400 years or less without global heating
But since humans started burning fossil fuels and warmed the world by 1.2C, such a drought is expected once in every 20 years in the northern hemisphere, excluding the tropics, according to an international group of 21 climate scientists.
Europe this year endured its hottest summer and worst wildfires ever recorded, and an additional 24,000 people died in part due to the heat, the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group said.
Intense heatwaves struck elsewhere too, with China issuing its first national drought alert and more than half of the US sliding into drought.
“The fact that we have these concurrent events at the same time in different locations… that’s really something we can only explain with human-induced climate change,” Professor Sonia Seneviratne from ETH Zurich University told reporters.
Responding to a question from Sky News, she explained that while in the past a single extreme event would have struck in a single location, now observations show that many events are hitting many regions at the same time.
“With increasing global warming… this will be even more the case,” Prof Seneviratne warned.
WWA analysed readings and modelling of moisture in the top metre of soils, the vital area from where crops extract water and one key measure of drought, for June-August this year.
The group, which conducts rapid analysis of the role of climate breakdown in extreme weather events, compared weather data and computer simulations of the climate as it is today, after 1.2C of warming, with that of the past.
They found hotter temperatures – rather than changes in rainfall – were the main culprit for drying out the land today. Although these things can be hard to measure, they said their figures are likely to be underestimates.
Climate change increased temperatures across the northern hemisphere “to such an extent that a summer as hot as this year would have been virtually impossible without climate change”, WWA found.
“It’s playing out in front of our eyes even faster than we might have expected,” said another author, Dr Maarten van Aalst, with “compounding and cascading risks” in power supply and crop failures.
The drought limited hydropower production and hot river water disrupted the cooling of nuclear power, hindering supply just as Russia squeezed gas supplies and Europeans turned up the air conditioning to cope with the heat. Crop yields also suffered, at the same time as grain exports from Ukraine were blocked and food prices rose.
“I don’t think people realized that the impacts would come at [Western and Central Europe] so hard, so quickly,” added Dr van Aalst, who also directs the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
Half of European Union territory and 11 of 14 areas in England remain in drought.
Environmentalists warn that the UK government’s recent scrapping of various nature protections – including adopted EU laws and payments to farmers for boosting nature – will exacerbate drought in the UK.
“This year we witnessed the impacts on our natural environment, with devastating wildfires causing significant wildlife losses and an influx of animals taken to rescue centres with dehydration,” said the Wildlife Trust’s climate change director Kathryn Brown
“Current proposals by the Government do little to reassure us that they fully understand the scale of the crises we face,” she told Sky News.
“Restoring nature and tackling climate change are absolutely essential to avoid the collapse of our natural world and the basic services we rely on to survive.”
A government spokesperson said: “Claims we intend to go back on our commitment to the environment are simply not right.
“A strong environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand. We have legislated through the Environment Act and will continue to improve our regulations and wildlife laws in line with our ambitious vision.”
Although the study has not been peer-reviewed, its methods have been, and all the group’s previous studies submitted for peer review have passed.
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