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Is Europe heading for a more drought prone future?

Parched landscape of Europe during the 2018 drought. Image credit: NASA, CC0

In 2018, Europe was hit with one of the worst droughts so far in the 21st century in terms of its extent, severity and duration. This had large-scale effects on the vegetation, both agricultural and natural. Harvest yields were substantially reduced, by up to 40% in some regions, and widescale browning of vegetation occurred. 

A consortium of international researchers, including members of the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group (ACRG) at the University of Bristol, asked the question: given the major impacts on vegetation, which plays an essential role in removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, was there an observable change in the amount of carbon uptake across Europe during this event? 

There are at least two ways to quantify the impact that the drought had on the terrestrial carbon sink: a bottom-up or top-down approach. Our plans and timelines to mitigate climate change rely on using these methods to predict how much of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions can be taken up by the natural biosphere. Currently, the terrestrial carbon sink (i.e. vegetation and soils) takes up approximately a third of manmade emissions. The oceans take up about a similar amount. But this important carbon sink is subject to variation brought about by naturally occurring variation in the climate and manmade climate change. 

To investigate the impact of the drought on the European terrestrial carbon sink, modellers can predict how individual processes that contribute to the terrestrial sink would respond to the climate during that period – a bottom-up approach. For example, a study by Bastos et al. (2019) compared the estimates of net ecosystem exchange during the drought period from 11 vegetation models. Net ecosystem exchange quantifies the amount of CO2 that is either taken up or released from the ecosystem and is usually quantified as a flux of CO2 to the atmosphere. This value is negative if the ecosystem is a sink and positive if it is a source of CO2 to the atmosphere. The consensus from previous studies was that an unusually sunny spring led to early vegetation growth, which depleted soil moisture, which intensified the drought during the summer period. Although more CO2 was taken up by the biosphere in spring, in some European regions, like Central Europe, the lack of rain during the summer months meant that the soils, already depleted in water, could not maintain the vegetation, and this led to CO2 losses from the ecosystem.

At the ACRG we use measurements of gases in the atmosphere, like CO2, to improve estimates of emissions and uptake of these gases using a top-down approach called inverse modelling. Measurements are obtained from carefully calibrated instruments that are part of global networks of measurement sites like AGAGE (Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment) and ICOS (Integrated Carbon Observation System). We also require initial estimates of the fluxes, which we obtain from several sources, including vegetation models and bottom-up inventories, and a model that describes atmospheric transport of the gas (a model that describes how a pocket of air will travel in the atmosphere). Using a statistical approach, we can then improve on those initial estimates to get better agreement between the modelled and observed concentrations at the measurement sites. With this method, we have to account for all sources of a gas, both anthropogenic and natural, as the concentration that is recorded at a measurement site is the sum of all contributions from all sources.

In a recent publication by Thompson et al. (2020), we compared the CO2 flux estimates for regions in Europe over the last ten years using the ACRG modelling method, along with four other approaches. The combined estimate from these five modelling systems indicated that the temperate region of Europe (i.e. Central Europe) was a small source of CO2 during 2018. This means that when carbon losses due to plant and soil respiration are compared with the carbon uptake by photosynthesis, then a small positive amount was emitted to the atmosphere on balance. This is described by a positive net flux of 0.09 ± 0.06 PgC y-1 (mean ± SD) to the atmosphere, compared with the mean of the last 10 years of -0.08 ± 0.17 PgC y-1, which is a net sink of carbon, meaning that over the last 10 years more carbon was taken up by photosynthesis than emitted through ecosystem respiration. Northern Europe was also found to be a small source in 2018. This publication was part of a special issue on the impacts of the 2018 drought on Europe.

So what does this tell us about how carbon uptake might change in the future? A 2018 study by Samaniego et al. considered future projections from climate models under different scenarios ranging from 1°C to 3°C global temperature rise. They concluded that soil moisture droughts were set to become 40% more likely by the end of the 21st century under the current 3°C future compared with 1.5°C set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Droughts like the previous “Lucifer” event in 2003, where as many as 35,000 people lost their lives due to the effects of the drought, are expected to become twice as likely. Failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that we mitigate the global temperature rise will impact on our ability to grow food and make killer drought events more likely. Our study shows that more frequent droughts will reduce the biosphere’s ability to take up our CO2 emissions due to the impact of a warmer climate on the soil and vegetation of key natural sinks, and lead to fundamental changes in the structure and species composition of these systems into the future. Unfortunately, this will further exacerbate the effects of climate change.


A. Bastos, P. Ciais, P. Friedlingstein, S. Sitch, J. Pongratz, L. Fan, J. P. Wigneron, U. Weber, M. Reichstein, Z. Fu, P. Anthoni, A. Arneth, V. Haverd, A. K. Jain, E. Joetzjer, J. Knauer, S. Lienert, T. Loughran, P. C. McGuire, H. Tian, N. Viovy, S. Zaehle. Direct and seasonal legacy effects of the 2018 heat wave and drought on European ecosystem productivity. Science Advances, 2020; 6 (24): eaba2724 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aba2724

M. Reuter, M. Buchwitz, M. Hilker, J. Heymann, H. Bovensmann, J.P. Burrows, S. Houweling, Y.Y. Liu, R. Nassar, F. Chevallier, P. Ciais, J. Marshall, M. Reichstein. How much CO2 is taken up by the European Terrestrial Biosphere? Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 2017; 98 (4): 665-671 DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00310.1

L. Samaniego, S. Thober, R. Kumar, N. Wanders, O. Rakovec, M. Pan, M. Zink, J. Sheffield, E.F. Wood, A. Marx. Anthropogenic warming exacerbates European soil moisture droughts. Nature Climate Change, 2018; 8, 421-426 DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0138-5

R.L. Thompson, G. Broquet, C. Gerbig, T. Kock, M. Lang, G. Monteil, S. Munassar, A. Nickless, M. Scholze, M. Ramonet, U. Karstens, E. van Schaik, Z. Wu, C. Rödenbeck. Changes in net ecosystem exchange over Europe during the 2018 drought based on atmospheric observations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2020; 375 (1810): 20190512 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2019.0512


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Alecia Nickless, a research associate in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol. 

Dr Alecia Nickless

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