Climate change intensifies droughts in Europe

Dr. ir. Niko Wanders
Dr. Niko Wanders.

Global warming will exacerbate soil droughts in Europe – droughts will last longer, affect greater areas, and have an impact on more people. This scenario was described in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change by an international team of authors, including scientist from Utrecht University. For the first time, the researchers explained how a global temperature rise of one to three degrees Celsius can have a significant impact on the distribution of soil droughts throughout Europe.

According to the modelling results of the author team – which involved scientists from Germany, the USA, United Kingdom in addition to Utrecht University hydrologist Niko Wanders – if global warming rises by three degrees, the drought regions in Europe will double in total area compared to the current situation. 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. With the exception of Scandinavia, 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.

Drought events become the normal state

Negative consequences can mainly be expected for the Mediterranean region. If the three-degrees scenario takes place, drought events of this intensity and extent could therefore occur twice as often in years ahead and become the normal state in many parts of Europe. A three-degree temperature rise also means that the water content in the soil would decline by 35 millimetres up to a depth of two metres. In other words, 35 000 cubic metres of water will no longer be available per square kilometre of land, that is the volume of 14 Olympic swimming pools. In future, droughts would even far exceed this normal state; the impact on civil society and the economy would be severe.

Drier summers

In this study we see that the drought impacts for the Netherlands will mainly occurs in summer. “We will observe drier summers in the future than has been the case so far” says Niko Wanders, hydrologist at Utrecht University. This will have serious impacts on the agricultural sector and river transportation, where we will see the impact of these droughts on agricultural yield and shipping.

Prevention is better than cure

Wanders stress that mankind can react to the expected spreading of droughts. “The effects of global warming can be reduced in part with some technical adjustments. However, these are costly,” The more certain way would be to implement the climate protection objectives of the Paris Agreement and thus reduce the negative effects on terrestrial droughts in the Netherlands and Europe in general.


L. Samaniego, S. Thober, R. Kumar, N. Wanders, O. Rakovec, M. Pan, M. Zink, J. Sheffield, E. F. Wood, and A. Marx (2018): Anthropogenic warming exacerbates European soil moisture droughts. Nature Climate Change