Drought! The truth is out there

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But all over the Iberian Peninsula and much of southern Europe, these scenes become all too familiar, even in the winter months. There was a time when devastating scenes of extreme drought were seen only in distant countries like Africa or Australia. But when I traveled to southern Europe earlier this year, I was surprised by the extent of the droughts, especially in many parts of the southern Iberian Peninsula.

On a walk to a dam in the Alentejo region, it was very disturbing to see how precariously the water levels had fallen. The pool seemed less than a third full, maybe even less. I saw the remains of dead trees trapped in the crazed dry mud that had once formed the bottom of the deep lake. I even came across the rotting hull of a long sunken rowboat that had made an unexpected reappearance decades after being lost in the murky depths. The name of its owner “Carlos” was still engraved on the wooden seat. The old boat served as a chilling reminder that severe, unseasonal droughts are getting a little too close to home for comfort.

Today’s drought

Spain and Portugal are said to experience the driest climate for at least 1,200 years. I have no idea how anyone knows, for sure, what the climate was doing at the time; but that’s what the experts tell us. Personally, I’m not too worried about what happened 1,200 years ago, but frankly, it’s comforting to know that such extremes happened before. I think we can be sure that the ancient droughts had little to do with road traffic or airliners. My concern is that today’s drought, if it were to persist, would have potentially serious consequences for food production and tourism. With a growing population, the world cannot afford to lose critical food production capacity.

Typically, the majority of the rain in the Iberian Peninsula falls during the winter months. Low-pressure systems rush off the Atlantic Ocean and dump valuable moisture onto the landmass. This helps maintain healthy crops and helps feed a growing population.

However, when high pressure systems (called Azores Highs) are stubbornly entrenched off the Iberian coast, they tend to prevent wet fronts from sweeping across Spain and Portugal. The few that do break through tend to largely die out before they make landfall and therefore don’t generate as much useful rain as they might otherwise.

The researchers found that winters with unusually strong Azores anticyclonic systems have increased from 10% (two hundred years ago) to over 25% in modern times. They also found that these high-pressure systems tend to push more wet weather northward, making showers in the north-west of the UK and northern Europe more common and extreme. This has caused more frequent flooding in parts of the UK and Ireland. Thus “Spain’s rain falls mainly in Wales. Cumbria and Scandinavia” leaving the “plains of Spain” looking distinctly parched.

Iberian drought

Scientists attribute the prevalence and increasing strength of the Azores Highs to the current Iberian drought, blaming these environmental anomalies on anthropogenic carbon emissions. It has been observed that the prevalence of stubborn highs from the Azores over the past hundred years has been unprecedented compared to what things might have looked like over the past thousand years. If these trends continue, the implications are potentially disastrous for the Iberian Peninsula and many other Mediterranean lands.

The Iberian Peninsula has been hit hard by increasingly frequent heat waves and droughts in recent years. This month of May (2022) turned out to be the hottest on record in Spain. Many of us will still not have forgotten the devastating wildfires that killed dozens of people in 2017. Environmentalists fear the Tagus River could dry up completely as more claims are made on its upstream waters.

Now for the complicated part. The researchers produced data going back hundreds of years using computer-generated models. The results revealed that before 1850 (the beginning of the large gas emissions of the Industrial Revolution), the large high-pressure systems of the Azores only occurred once every ten years on average. But after 1980, this figure increased to once every four years. Scientists have concluded that the high peaks of the Azores reduce average precipitation by more than 33% during the winter months. Additionally, analysis of chemical data taken from stalagmites found in some Portuguese caves has proven that low rainfall correlates with the presence of large Azorean anticyclones.

Serious consequences

These results mean that there are serious implications for water resources throughout the Iberian Peninsula. There could be very real consequences for the future availability of water for agriculture as well as other water-intensive industries such as tourism. The results so far do not bode well as Spain is ranked as the second most popular country for outbound tourism in 2019 (before the pandemic) welcoming an astonishing 85 million visitors. They use a lot of water per capita.

When it comes to agriculture, Spain is the largest producer of olives in the world. The country also produces plenty of grapes, oranges, tomatoes, and many other staple fruits and vegetables that regularly appear on our supermarket shelves. However, precipitation has declined by 5-10mm per year since the 1950s, with a further decline of 10-20% in winter rainfall expected by the end of this century.

Computer simulations of the Earth’s climate over the past millennium cover a period up to 2005. Other simulations provide data that cover more recent years. They all demonstrate that the Azores anticyclones should continue to develop. It is clear that this will further increase drought episodes in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

While this all seems to present a depressingly cataclysmic overview, it’s hard to ignore the facts when we see the evidence first hand. It’s there for everyone to see if only we open our eyes. We do not need to rely on potentially “biased” third party accounts or analysis.

Recent geopolitical events have certainly caused world leaders to think much more carefully about our use of fossil fuels and our overreliance on unstable supplies and suppliers. It is clear that measures and solutions have long existed to help alleviate the growing environmental problems of our world. Too bad the agenda is only starting to move now that we feel the end of a proverbial barrel pressed against our temples.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing, but rather than acting faster in the spirit of prevention being infinitely preferable to cure, we have all been guilty of gross environmental complacency. But now the writing is on the wall and the world is clearly not in a very good position. Today’s woes represent a timely shot across the arc. We ignore this at our peril.

Disclaimer:
The opinions expressed on this page are those of the author and not of The Portugal News.

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