A boulder with grim inscriptions was recently exposed as the Elbe River, which flows over it in the Czech Republic, ran at dangerously low levels. It read "if you can see me, weep". Known as "the hunger stones," they were engraved at the waterline of rivers in the 15th century as warnings for future generations that famine and other hardships were imminent each time the stones became visible. This is one of the many eerie shreds of evidence that illustrate the graveness of the droughts that have gripped countries worldwide. This is especially evident in China and countries in Europe where anomalous dry conditions are threatening to impact access to drinking water, fueling wildfires, reducing crop yields, interrupting electricity generation, disrupting navigational routes and impacting businesses.
Such extreme and unprecedented drought conditions are anticipated to worsen globally, as a report by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification revealed that over 75% of the world could face drought by 2050. As history has demonstrated, this could have dire implications considering that horrible sequels of social upheavals and climate-induced conflicts often follow extreme drought conditions.
Assessing the impact of the droughts in Europe
Facing the worst drought in the last 500 years, European countries have been hit hard by extremely dry weather conditions. A report by the Joint Research Centre states that 47% of Europe is under warning conditions, and 7% is in a state of alert. The impact of the drought has thus been dire:
Water levels are running low in major waterways like the Rhine, Danube and Po, impacting access to drinking water, agriculture and commerce. In France, over 100 towns) have no access to drinking water and are relying on trucks for water supply.
Electricity generation, too, has taken a blow due to water shortages as hydroelectric and thermoelectric power production has been reduced or suspended across countries. In France, where nuclear power is the primary source of electricity, several reactors were forced to reduce their output as river temperatures were too high to cool the plants.
The water shortages have also led countries to take severe measures. For example, the Italian government has declared a state of emergency and countries like Spain and France have imposed restrictions on water consumption.
As water levels reach extremely low levels, water bodies cannot support even mid-size vessels. Thus, vessels have been forced to sail with reduced loads, making the journeys long and uneconomical and causing supply-chain disruptions. For example, delays on the Rhine- Germany's main shipping route has led to a five-fold increase in freight costs. These losses are predicted to result in a 0.5% drop in Germany's economic growth.
A drone image shows the dry bed of the Po River, Italy’s longest and most formidable waterway. The ongoing droughts in the country have caused the flow rate of the river to fall to one-tenth of its usual figure. Photograph: Andrea Fasani/EPA. Source: The Guardian.
Dearth in water supplies has also impacted agriculture, the consequences of which have been severe. The largest delta along river Po in Italy is witnessing high salinity levels putting clams and rice production at risk; In France, corn harvest is expected to be 20% lower than last year; in Romania, cereal crop is anticipated to decrease by 30 million tonnes. This threatens to increase food prices, as in the case of Italy, where the prices of olive oil and risotto rice are anticipated to increase by 50%.
The images from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites illustrates the impact of drought on Noordoostpolder, Netherlands. The brown areas indicate the absence of vegetation caused by drought and crop failures. Source: Copernicus.
A report by the Global Drought Observatory (GDO) warned that the resulting water stress could also potentially result in famine, thus threatening to worsen the crisis.
According to @CopernicusEMS European Drought Observatory (EDO) 17% of the EU territory is in ‘Alert’ conditions, and 47% of the EU territory is in 'Warning' conditions. Source: Copernicus.
A closer look at the drought in China
China is facing the worst drought in its record, marked by extreme temperatures and low rainfall. This has lead to a severe ripple effect ranging from causing food security challenges to energy deficits. Several pressing issues caused by the droughts are summarized below:
The drought has turned water bodies arid in China, including the Yangtze, which provides drinking water to over 400 million Chinese citizens.
As drought dries up the Yangtze river, China loses hydropower. Source: Zhong Guilin/VCG via Getty Images
The low water levels in rivers, which are vital for the operation of hydroelectric power plants, have also caused electricity deficits as power production from the Three Gorges Dam has decreased by about 40 per cent since last year.
The resulting power shortages have impacted companies such as Toyota and Foxconn, which have had to halt production. Battery supply and sale of electronic devices, solar panels and semiconductors are also expected to be hit as many manufacturing sectors are based in Sichuan, where the government has suspended or limited power supply to thousands of factories.
Further, as water levels dropped in the Yangtze river, China’s largest waterway for trade, it has also caused supply chain challenges, threatening to paralyze the manufacturing and export industries.
The agriculture sector is impacted as well, as water-intensive crops such as rice and soy are affected, just as the region approaches the harvest season.
Assessing the Cause of Droughts: Signs of Global ‘Warn’ing?
Droughts are generally caused due to precipitation deficiency over an extended period of time. This loss in precipitation can be caused due to natural factors such as ocean temperatures and air circulation patterns in the atmosphere, among other factors. However, anthropogenic activities like deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions by human activities, outdated water management systems, intensive irrigation etc., also cause droughts. While droughts have historical antecedents and intersecting causes, scientists believe that current extreme weather conditions are exacerbated by human-induced climate change.
A study undertaken by the World Weather Attribution Initiative, an international consortium of climate scientists, revealed that extreme temperatures witnessed in the United Kingdom this July were “extremely unlikely” to have been caused without anthropogenic climate change. As the climate crisis worsens, the chances of such extreme weather conditions are also anticipated to intensify.
The UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw said in a press release, “The facts and figures of this publication all point in the same direction: an upward trajectory in the duration of droughts and the severity of impacts, not only affecting human societies but also the ecological systems upon which the survival of all life depends, including that of our own species.”
These droughts thus pose a strong warning that unless we cut down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, such climate disasters will get increasingly frequent and intense, threatening to eventually lead to an impending climate armageddon.
Importance of Data in Climate Modelling
As these extreme climatic events threaten to worsen in the coming years it has become important to monitor climate risks in order to develop mitigation strategies and ramp up climate action. One of the important tools to do this is climate modelling. However, several studies have found that the recent extreme climatic events have surpassed predictions made by experts. While climate projections are imprecise by nature and require constant revisions, scientists are worried that these climate models significantly underestimate the risks. One of the major factors responsible for this is the lack of credible data, which is the cornerstone of a reliable climate model, as a climate model is only as good as its inputs.
In this regard, some of the key data characteristics for effective climate modelling are:
High-frequency data: Climate modelling without high-frequency data has a very limited utility. For instance, data gathered a few times a year cannot paint a clear picture of climate risks. High-frequency data is essential to gain better insights and enables higher statistical precision in climate modelling.
High resolution: High-resolution data is vital for better mapping and monitoring of climate systems. It also helps in better quantification of vital factors such as the change in land cover. Currently, most climate models are of a global scale and have to be scaled down significantly to get regional insights, which compromises the resolution.
Near real-time data: Near real-time data allows continuous monitoring, which helps identify trends, establish parameters, trigger levels and accurate quantification of risks and probabilities. Moreover, it is an important factor in developing prediction sets. Currently, climate models draw vast insights from historical data that no longer suffice . As climate change drives new weather patterns, relying only on historical data reduces the model's accuracy. In addition, the efficacy of historical models is also limited by their shortcomings. For example, documentation has been poor in many parts of the world, and government agencies in most countries began collecting data only towards the end of the last century.
Wide-scope: Climate models must have a broad scope that looks at the earth as one system. Monitoring a single variable does not provide an overall understanding of the climate crisis, as most climate phenomena are interlinked. All the essential variables need to be assessed for a holistic understanding of our planetary systems.
These features can increase the accuracy of climate models, which can further help in building resilience and minimising the impact of such crises.
The droughts in Europe and China are only a few of the many disasters that have struck countries worldwide. From wildfires in Spain, floods in Pakistan, tornadoes in the US and heatwaves in Africa, these climate-induced disasters are mere precursors to the impending climate apocalypse that threatens human civilization unless serious climate action is undertaken. In this regard, reliable climate models, ensured by credible data, play an important role as they can help us understand climate risks, develop mitigation strategies accordingly and ramp up preparedness.