EU Science Hub

The exceptional 2018 European water seesaw calls for action on adaptation

Abstract: 

Temperature and precipitation are the most important factors responsible for agricultural productivity variations. In 2018 spring/summer growing season, Europe experienced concurrent anomalies of both. Drought conditions in central and northern Europe caused yield reductions up to 50% for the main crops, yet wet conditions in southern Europe saw yield gains up to 34%, both with respect to the previous 5-year mean. Based on the analysis of documentary and natural proxy-based seasonal paleoclimate reconstructions for the past half millennium, we show that the 2018 combination of climatic anomalies in Europe was unique. The water seesaw, a marked dipole of negative water anomalies in central Europe and positive ones in southern Europe, distinguished 2018 from the five previous similar droughts since 1976. Model simulations reproduce the 2018 European water seesaw in only 4 years out of 875 years in historical runs and projections. Future projections under the RCP8.5 scenario show that 2018-like temperature and rainfall conditions, favorable to crop growth, will occur less frequent in southern Europe. In contrast, in central Europe high-end emission scenario climate projections show that droughts as intense as 2018 could become a common occurrence as early as 2043. While integrated European and global agricultural markets limited agro-economic shocks caused by 2018's extremes, there is an urgent need for adaptation strategies for European agriculture to consider futures without the benefits of any water seesaw.