Drought impact on ecosystems in Europe

Monitoring drought impact is a precondition for effective measures to adapt or increase the resilience of ecosystems, as foreseen by the EU Biodiversity strategy 2030. Between 2000 and 2019, the EEA-39 region was affected by severe droughts with an annual productivity loss of 3% in impacted areas. The last decade saw the most intense drought years; notably the years 2013 and 2016-2019 showed strong impacts on vegetation productivity. Drought impacts on forests were worst, with 5% annual productivity loss followed by croplands (4% annual decrease) and heathlands/shrubs (3.1% decrease). 

Published: ‒ 25min read

Long lasting, severe and frequent droughts cause habitat loss, migration of local species and the spread of invasive alien species and consequently biodiversity loss. Droughts have an impact on water resources and agriculture production, cause soil erosion, reduce carbon sequestration and overall contribute to land degradation.

Droughts affect several targets of the EU Biodiversity strategy 2030 related to protecting and restoring nature. As droughts hamper nature's ability to deliver a wide range of environmental, social, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and biodiversity benefits, they impact the implementation of the EU Strategy on Green Infrastructure. Viable food production, sustainable management of natural resources, climate action and balanced territorial development, long-term objectives of the EU Common Agriculture Policy, are also affected by droughts.

In the EU-27 and the United Kingdom, the year 2003 saw drought impact over the largest area, but the intensity of vegetation productivity loss was highest in 2002 as well as in 2013 and the years 2016-2019 (Figure 1), indicating that the frequency and intensity of drought impacts has increased in the last decade. During the period 2000-2019, vegetation productivity loss due to drought amounted to an annual average of 3%. Impacrs on forests were the worst with an annual average productivity loss of 5%, whereas in croplands vegetation productivity decreased by an annual average of 4%. Inland wetlands were the only ecosystems with a slight increase in vegetation productivity — this however might be because of less surface water and hence a stronger vegetation signal, which in turn is also an indication of drought impact.

During the 20 year period, forests suffered the most intensive and most frequent impacts, especially in the years 2007, 2013 and 2016-2019. In the last 3 years, the forest area impacted increased continuously from 60,000 km2 in 2017 to 160,000 km2 in 2019. In croplands, drought impact intensity during the last 3 years was significantly higher than in any of the years of the previous decade, accounting for 317,000 km2 in 2018 and 221,000 km2 in 2019. Drought impact intensity on grasslands peaked in 2018, when circa 30,000 km2 of grasslands suffered productivity loss.

In the period 2000-2019, the proportion of a country's territory suffering from drought impacts was highest in Malta. On average ,31% of the country suffered from impacts from drought. The figure was also high in Cyprus (19%) and was around or slightly above 10% in Lithuania, followed by Portugal, Czechia, Bulgaria and Spain. However, the average annual drought impact intensity on vegetation was highest in Czechia, followed by Austria and Sweden, and to a lesser extent Portugal, Spain, Latvia Slovenia and Germany and Finland.

Drought impact on cropland productivity was worst in Portugal, followed by Austria and Finland. On average, 61% of croplands were affected in Portugal (7,000 km2 per year), 46% in Austria (2,455 km2 per year) and up to 30% in Finland. Forests and woodlands were most affected by drought in Sweden, Austria and Czechia, with an average of 56%, 48% and 30%, respectively, of forests losing productivity every year. Drought impacts on grasslands were worst in Austria, followed by Slovenia, Finland and Sweden, although the average yearly affected grassland area remained under 5%. Although the average annual drought impact on wetlands was below 5%, Latvian wetlands suffered from the most intense droughts, with a productivity los off 60 km2 per year, followed by Sweden (600 km2) and Finland (345km2).

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