Europe is in the throes of a once-in-500 years severe drought that is making its rivers into shallow streams and its lakes into vanishing puddles. The mighty Rhine in Germany is so low that it may soon not be navigable. The biggest lake in Italy is fast disappearing. These are catastrophic events that beggar the imagination. The drought is deepening and is expected to spread to nearly half of the continent.
Europe has a long history and has had droughts before. The 1921 drought, in the year that Ireland won independence and Hitler became the head of the small Nazi party, was the worst in the first half of the 20th century. And there was a doozy in 1540, when Henry VIII briefly married a fourth wife and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ended the rebellion of Ghent by marching into the city. But the string of droughts in the past decade in Europe have been even more severe, and tree ring studies show that these 21st century droughts are worse than anything Europe has seen since the time of Christ, 2,000 years ago!
The climate crisis is not a single process. It is kaleidoscopic. You can have droughts. You can have floods. You can have a drought and then a flood immediately after. The droughts are megadroughts because more heat dries things out more. The floods are mega-floods, because over the ocean there is more moisture in the warm air, and it makes landfall in torrents. Moreover, if it falls on dry, packed earth baked by heat waves, the soil can’t absorb the water and it runs off, turning into flash floods.
Tourists flocking to cool off at Lake Garda in Italy have been dismayed to find dry mud and rocks where much of the lake used to be, and to find the remaining water in the lake tropically hot. One remarked on going for walks last year along the lake and finding this year that it wasn’t there anymore. Authorities have released some of the lake water into rivers such as the Po, which has also been reduced to a shadow of its former self, putting the farmers who irrigated off it in a bind.
In Germany, shippers on the Rhine are preparing to halt shipments, as the river reached a critical low point on Saturday. Big river boats need the water to be at least 16 inches high, and at Kaub the Rhine fell below that. It is 40% cheaper to send things down the river than to ship them by rail, so a closure could mean higher prices and delays for consumers. Already, river boats are only carrying about a third of their normal load so as to ride high in the diminished water.
The drought in Norway is lowering levels in the reservoirs of its hydroelectricity plants. Norway is called the battery of Europe because it exports a lot of its hydro-generated electricity to other countries, including Britain. It may have to cease such exports, however, threatening the UK with blackouts.
Parts of Britain are officially in drought as the country comes off the driest July in 90 years. The source of the iconic river Thames has dried up, and farmers are in trouble. Britain recorded its highest temperatures ever last month.
The steam engine was invented in Europe, more specifically Great Britain. Boiling water for engines required burning things. Most modern power has involved thinking up ways to make water boil, which makes pistons turn. The problem with burning wood, coal, petroleum or methane gas to boil the water is that when you burn them, they put large amounts of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere. We’ve been doing this now for about 270 years, a little longer than the United States of America has existed, and by now we’ve really heated up the planet. But that process is only at the beginning. We can make it hellishly hot if we go on like this.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on August 14, 2022, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole. It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.
Image Credit: NASA