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Europe's drought is the worst in 500 years, officials say, as two-thirds of the continent is under distress

Europe faces wildfires, drought, record heat
Europe faces wildfires and extreme drought amid record heat wave 02:23

The devastating drought in Europe now extends to nearly two-thirds of the continent, in what European officials say is likely the worst drought in 500 years. 

The findings came with the European Commission's Global Drought Observatory's release of a new report on the conditions this week. The commission found that 47% of the continent is suffering from drought warnings, meaning there is a lack of precipitation and the soil is drying, while an additional 17% of the continent is under drought alerts, meaning that along with the soil and precipitation issues, vegetation is showing signs of stress. 

"The severe drought affecting many regions of Europe since the beginning of the year has been further expanding and worsening as of early August," the report, which includes data from the first 10 days of August, says in its executive summary. "Dry conditions are related to a wide and persistent lack of precipitation combined with a sequence of heatwaves from May onwards." 

Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Romania, Hungary, northern Serbia, Ukraine, Moldova, Ireland and the United Kingdom are under increasingly hazardous conditions, the report says, as the rest of Europe, though affected by severely dry conditions, maintains stability. England just had its driest July since 1935.

Few areas — just the southern Czech Republic, northern Austria and small areas of central France — have seen any recovery, the report says. 

The brutal heatwaves and dry spell has taken a visible toll across the continent. 

River levels have gotten so low that artifacts have emerged from their depths. In June, water got so low in Italy's largest river, Po, that a 164-year-old barge that transported wood during World War II and sank in 1943 was made visible. Dozens of sunken ships have also emerged along Europe's second-longest river, the Danube, which travels from southwestern Germany to the Black Sea in eastern Romania. 

Wildfires have also swept the country, burning up crops and forcing many to flee their homes. Earlier this month, a devastating blaze tore through the Bordeaux wine region and reduced a swath of land to ash. Roughly 10,000 people had to evacuate in that region alone. Spain and Portugal have been battling their own fires, with thousands of firefighters being deployed to try and help control the burns. 

The conditions have led the European Commission to say that "the current drought in Europe appears to be the worst in at least 500 years," adding that "the effects of climate change are becoming more evident every year." 

The ongoing crisis has taken a toll on several sectors in Europe, including energy and agriculture. The reduced water availability has strained hydropower generation and had a severe impact on power plant cooling systems, the report says, as water and heat stress have "substantially reduced" summer crop yields. 

Grain maize, soybeans and sunflowers have been the most impacted. Compared to the 5-year-average, yields for these crops are down 16%, 15% and 12%, respectively, the report says. 

Some mid-August precipitation might have helped some areas with their drought conditions, but for many areas, the storms that have rolled through only added to the damage and loss, minimizing the benefits of rain. 

And according to the report, it's not over. 

Researchers expect conditions to be "warmer and drier than usual" in the western Euro-Mediterranean region until at least November. Some areas of the Iberian Peninsula, drier-than-normal conditions are expected for at least three months a well, the report warns. 

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