Drought impact on ecosystems in Europe (8th EAP)

Monitoring drought impact supports policy measures that increase greenhouse gas removals and the adaptation of resilient ecosystems to climate change. Between 2000 and 2021 the EU-27 was affected by severe droughts; with particular impacts in 2003, 2012, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Highest impacts are seen in croplands and forests, with around 62 and 52 thousand km2 respectively being affected on average annually. The extent of drought-affected areas gradually increased in the last two decades and may increase further if no effective global mitigation and EU wide adaptation strategies are established.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Droughts hamper nature's ability to deliver a wide range of environmental, social, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and biodiversity benefits. They also impact the EU’s ability to achieve its climate change mitigation and adaptation aims and on the implementation of the EU biodiversity and soil strategies. 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 drought . It is therefore important that the EU takes action to decrease impact severity.

During the period 2000-2021, on average 4.5% (ca. 146,000km2) of the EU was affected annually by droughts due to low precipitation, high evaporation and heatwaves. The extent of intense drought impacts showed increasing tendency in the EU indicating worsening ecosystem condition (Figure 1). Eight years were above the long-term average in terms of drought impact, out of which five years were in the last decade.

Droughts have wide-ranging impacts, on croplands affecting food supply and contributing to carbon emissions. The average annual area of affected croplands during 2000-2021 was around 62,000km2. Forests and woodlands sequester large amounts of carbon and provide important habitats for wildlife. These ecosystems also suffered intense and frequent impacts of drought in 2000-2021, with around 52,000km2 being affected annually. Grasslands and wetlands are among the most biodiverse areas in the EU with high carbon-sequestration potential. While the impacted grassland area has increased slightly, wetlands showed the largest increase in the impacted area among ecosystems in the EU.

By 2030 the frequency and intensity of heatwaves is projected to increase whereas summer precipitation is projected to decrease . Based on this and the current trends, drought impacted areas might further increase by 2030. It is therefore important that land management practices are adequately adjusted in a timely manner to mitigate future impacts of droughts.

In the period 2000-2020, the annual average area of drought-affected land (as a share of a country's territory) was highest in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta (8% of each country’s area), followed by Estonia, Lithuania and Portugal (6% of each country’s area) (Figure 2). In most Member States, 2021 was not an exceptional drought year: drought impact in 2021 higher than the 2000-2020 average, in proportion of the country area, was found in Finland and Sweden. From the non-EU region Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Norway, and Türkiye experienced higher drought impact in 2021 than the 2000-2020 annual average.

In the beginning of the century, drought impact mostly occurred in South, South-East and Continental Europe. In the last decade countries in the Atlantic region (e.g. the Benelux states), the Baltic region and Scandinavia also experienced strong drought impact on increasingly large areas (dashboard). Hence the extent of drought in the impacted countries as well as the number of impacted countries have gradually increased in the last two decades.

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