River flow drought (CLIM 018) - Assessment published Sep 2008
Climate change (Primary topic)
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CLIM 018
Key policy question: .
- Europe has been affected by several major droughts in recent decades, such as the catastrophic drought associated with the summer 2003 heatwave in central parts of the continent and the 2005 drought in the Iberian Peninsula.
- Despite the absence of an overall trend in Europe as a whole, climate change has probably increased the frequency and/or severity of droughts in some regions.
- Climate change is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts in many regions of Europe as a result of higher temperatures, decreased summer precipitation, and more and longer dry spells.
- The regions most prone to an increase in drought hazard are southern and south-eastern Europe, but minimum river flows will also decrease significantly in many other parts of the continent, especially in summer.
Change in the severity of river flow droughts in Europe 1962-1990
Note: The map shows change in the severity of river droughts
Hisdal, H.; Stahl, K.; Tallaksen, L. M. and Demuth, S., 2001. Have droughts in Europe become more severe or frequent? International Journal of Climatology 21: 317333.
Change in the severity of river flow droughts in France 1960-2000
Lang, M.; Renard, B.; Sauquet, E.; Bois, P.; Dupeyrat, A.; Laurent, C.; Mestre, O.; Niel, H.; Neppel, L. and Gailhard, J., 2006. Climate Variability and Change Hydrological Impacts. IAHS Publ. 308.
Projected change in mean annual and summer minimum 7-day river flow between 2071-2100 and the reference period 1961-1990
Note: Red indicates more severe droughts, blue less severe droughts
Feyen, L. and Dankers, R., 2008. River flow drought in Europe in a future climate. Manuscript submitted to Global Environmental Change.
Over the past 30 years, Europe has been affected by a number of major droughts, most notably in 1976, 1989, 1991, and more recently, the prolonged drought over large parts of the continent associated with the 2003 summer heatwave. The most serious drought in the Iberian Peninsula in 60 years occurred in 2005, reducing overall EU cereal yields by an estimated 10 %. The drought also triggered forest fires, killing 15 people and destroying 180 000 ha of forest and farmland in Portugal alone (UNEP, 2006). However, there is no evidence that river flow droughts have become more severe or frequent over Europe in general in recent decades (Hisdal et al., 2001), nor is there conclusive proof of a general increase in summer dryness in Europe over the past 50 years due to reduced summer moisture availability (van der Schrier et al., 2006).
Despite the absence of a general trend in Europe, there have been distinct regional differences. In particular, more severe river flow droughts have been observed in Spain, the eastern part of eastern Europe and large parts of the United Kingdom (Hisdal et al., 2001). However, in the United Kingdom there is no evidence of a significant increase in the frequency of occurrence of low river flows (Hanneford and Marsh, 2006). In large parts of central Europe and in the western parts of eastern Europe droughts have become less severe (Hisdal et al., 2001). In France, a majority of stations showed a decreasing trend in the annual minima of 30-day mean river flows over the past 40 years, but no such trend was found for drought severity or duration (Lang et al., 2006). In southern and eastern Norway there has been a tendency towards more severe summer droughts (Hisdal et al., 2001). On the other hand, several stations in Europe have shown trends towards less severe low flows over the 20th century, consistent with an increasing number of reservoirs becoming operational in the catchments over the period for which there are records (Svensson et al., 2005).
River flow droughts are projected to increase in frequency and severity in southern and south-eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, France, Benelux, and western parts of Germany over the coming decades. In snow-dominated regions, where droughts typically occur in winter, river flow droughts are projected to become less severe because a lower fraction of precipitation will fall as snow in warmer winters. In most of Europe, the projected decrease in summer precipitation, accompanied by rising temperatures which enhances evaporative demand, may lead to more frequent and intense summer droughts (Douville et al., 2002; Lehner et al., 2006; Feyen and Dankers, 2008). As a result of both climate change and increasing water withdrawals, more river basins will be affected by severe water stress, resulting in increased competition for water resources. The regions most prone to an increase in drought risk are the Mediterranean and south-eastern parts of Europe, which already suffer most from water stress (Alcamo et al., 2003; Schroter et al., 2005).
European water archive
provided by Global Runoff Data Centre (GRDC)
Variation of floods and droughts in France
provided by International Hydrological Programme
More information about this indicator
See this indicator specification for more details.
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoWouter Vanneuville
EEA Management Plan2008 2.3.1 (note: EEA internal system)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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