By Tim Radford
If average global temperatures rise by just 3°C, then Europe's drought risk could increase to double the area faced with drying out. Right now, just 13 percent of the continent can be counted as a drought-prone region. As the thermometer soars, this proportion could rise to 26 percent.
And 400 million people could feel the heat as the water content in the European soils begins to evaporate. The worst droughts will last three to four times longer than they did in the last decades of the last century.
The number of months of drought in southern Europe could increase significantly. In this zone drought is already measured more than 28 percent of the land area: this could, in the most extreme scenario, expand to 49 percent.
"In the event of a three-degree warming, we assume there will be 5.6 drought months per year; up to now, the number has been 2.1 months. For some parts of the Iberian peninsula, we project that the drought could even last more than seven months," said Luis Samaniego, of the UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany.
His co-author Stephan Thober added: "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."
The two scientists, with colleagues from the UK, the U.S., the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia, report in Nature Climate Change that they used mathematical models to simulate the effect of temperature rise as a response to ever-greater global emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, from the combustion of fossil fuels.
The 35mm loss of water was roughly what parts of Europe experienced during the unprecedented drought of 2003. If planetary temperatures do rise by 3°C, then such episodes could become the normal state in many parts of Europe, and far worse could be on the way.
Once again, none of this will come as a shock to other climate scientists, who have repeatedly warned that the cost of not confronting the menace of climate change could be huge in terms of lives lost, forests burned and harvests ruined.
But such droughts are not inevitable, nor likely across the whole of Europe. The Baltic states and Scandinavia could experience higher rainfall in a warmer world. The same simulations found that—were the world to achieve the 1.5°C global warming limit which 195 nations agreed upon at the Paris climate summit in 2015—then the Mediterranean region would experience only 3.2 months of drought. And water loss in the top two meters would be only about 8 millimeters.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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