Drought in Europe hits France for the fifth time in eight years

KANSAS CITY — Blame it on long-term weather cycles, climate change, or just plain bad luck, Western Europe is suffering from a severe drought centered in France. The latest Vegetative Health Index (VHI) suggests that the summer of 2022 will be the fifth time in eight years in which the country has suffered a mid-summer drought affecting production. France is not alone in this year’s drought and relief will come slowly.

The drought has not only affected France, but also parts of Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. Some would argue that the drought is affecting an even larger part of the continent. Soil moisture in southeastern countries is as poor or poorer than that of France, although the VHI for this part of the continent does not reflect much impact on grain or oilseed production – from least not yet.

France has been at the center of the interests of European agriculture since the heat wave in early July hit the country and many neighboring regions. This heat wave sent temperatures to 104.5°F as far north as east-central England and over 100°F in western Germany. The heat also affected the heart of France and resulted from months of low rainfall allowing the ground and air to dry out. As the air dried out, temperatures were able to swing wildly whenever cool, warm air masses moved in and out of the country.

Much of Europe was drier than usual in March, and it was the first significant dry month of the growing season, but drought and drought reports were already being received in February due to a winter with little rain. May was also drier than usual, although April was a month of improved humidity in some areas and helped to minimize concerns about the March drought. April rain was better, but not enough to fully restore soil moisture to normal. Then May arrived and reduced rainfall as temperatures favored warm across much of the continent, with France reporting its first month of significantly below average rainfall.

Interestingly, France reported above normal rainfall in June, although much of it was due to a single event that broke May’s drought. It didn’t take long thereafter for July to once again deplete soil moisture in France as temperatures rose significantly above normal. There had been heat spells before in Western Europe, but a huge accumulation of hot air over North Africa was driven north by changing weather patterns, and so the famous early July heat wave has evolved. This heat wave only lasted about three days, but it set the tone for the rest of July and the rainfall never again became high enough to support crops in an ideal way.

The decline in crop health then occurred steadily until the end of July and continued to decline in the early days of August. Crop condition indices in France fell dramatically in late July and water supplies became low enough across most of the country to warrant water restrictions, raising concerns for maize production d summer and sunflower seeds as well as for many fruit and vegetable crops. Irrigation, according to the French Ministry of Agriculture, accounts for 45% of water use in France, followed by 31% for electricity generation and 21% for drinking water, leaving 3% for industrial use. In the event of a severe drought, water restrictions would naturally affect crops more than other industries.

The water supply situation affected the whole of France, but almost half of the country’s water services were operating in a crisis situation. Several key agricultural areas in France have reported water consumption for agriculture reduced by half.

The impact of drought is most clearly demonstrated by the VHI, which is a satellite imagery system that assesses crop health using an indicator of greenness. Satellite images filter out certain colors and show how the greenness of agricultural areas compares to normal in an attempt to estimate the impact of drought on any production region. By the end of July, satellite images showed that almost the entire western half of Europe was experiencing some level of crop stress.

Crop stress, as indicated by the VHI, was most severe in France, northern Italy, central Spain and a few pockets in Hungary and Germany. The most meaningful image comparison was found against the index at the end of July this year versus that of 2021. Crops that were rated quite favorably last year are now proving to be seriously stressed. Crop conditions appear to be better in central France, where above normal rainfall occurred in June. The rest of the country was reporting serious stress, especially in the northwest and south of the country.

This is not the only episode of unfavorable heat and drought in Western Europe during the summer. In the past eight years, Western Europe has experienced mid-summer crop stress five times. The years 2015, 2018 to 2020 and now 2022 have brought enough mid-summer drought to stress crops. This has had an impact on the production of grains, oilseeds and other crops. Some of those years were drier and warmer than usual for longer periods than others, but the battle with drought has raised serious concerns about the long-term trend in weather patterns.

The first year of the most recent series of drought years occurred in 2003 when Europe reported its hottest weather since 1540. But Europe has very well documented reports of droughts and famines in long term that have affected the continent in the past. Caution should therefore be exercised before concluding that it will never again rain significantly in the region. As the atmosphere warms, more moisture will be held in the air and it will eventually rain somewhere on the planet, and Europe will be no exception.

Over the past three years, China has reported a phenomenal amount of rain that has resulted in severe flooding. The United States experienced similar conditions for a few years before the onset of the 2020-22 drought, and parts of the Canadian prairies experienced severe flooding during 2008-2013. World Weather, Inc. believes that the trend will change again in Europe and that the continent, like others, will eventually be affected by excessive rainfall rather than drought. For now, however, the problem is drought and the impact of this year’s drought on Western Europe is expected to be significant, particularly in France.