Climate change made this summer's drought 20 times more likely, study finds

Rising global temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels made this summer’s brutal droughts across the Northern Hemisphere — which dried up rivers, sparked unprecedented wildfires and led to widespread crop failure — 20 times more likely, according to a new study.

Climate change is rewriting normal weather patterns in real time, said the study by World Weather Attribution, a consortium of international scientists who examine the link between rising average global temperatures and extreme weather. The droughts that affected North America, Europe and Asia this summer were so extreme that they would normally be considered a 1-in-400-year event, the study found, but due to climate change, the planet can now expect a repeat of those conditions every 20 years.

Individual daily temperature records in Europe were repeatedly broken over the summer of 2022, and the extreme heat was blamed for 24,000 deaths on the continent. Higher average temperatures also dramatically increase evaporation rates, drying out soils and vegetation and leading to a heightened wildfire risk, all of which negatively impact farming.

“In Europe, drought conditions led to reduced harvests. This was particularly worrying, as it followed a climate-change-fueled heat wave in South Asia that also destroyed crops, and happened at a time when global food prices were already extremely high due to the war in Ukraine," Friederike Otto, professor of climate science at Grantham Institute in the U.K. and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.

The Loire River under extreme drought conditions
The Loire River under extreme drought conditions in Loireauxence, France, on Aug. 16. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

But as the summer of 2022 showed, climate change amplifies seemingly contradictory effects, worsening drought while also dramatically increasing the risks of extreme precipitation events. In addition to drying out soil, increased evaporation rates due to higher temperatures result in higher levels of atmospheric moisture. A study published in Science in June found that climate change was disrupting monsoon seasons across Asia, making them wetter and more deadly.

That is exactly what played out in Pakistan this summer, when a monsoon season that dumped six times as much rain as the 30-year average displaced more than 32 million people and killed more than 1,300.

In other words, climate change is ushering in a new normal that is characterized by chaotic swings from one extreme to another, according to a study published in March by climate researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Dried-up corn plants
Dried-up corn plants near Ferrara, Italy. (Gabriele Pileri/Reuters)

“Twenty-first century trends in hydroclimate are so large that future average conditions will, in most cases, fall into the range of what we would today consider extreme drought or pluvial [increased rainfall] states,” the study reads.

Peter Gleick, the founder of the Pacific Institute, who edited the UCSB study and told Yahoo News last year that “the hydrologic cycle is the climate cycle,” has long warned that climate change will lead to exactly the kinds of outcomes witnessed this summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The warnings that the climate cycle and the water cycle are changing and that those impacts are going to be increasingly severe are now coming true,” Gleick said.

The study by World Weather Attribution is just the latest such report to make those assertions.

“Our analysis shows that last summer’s severe drought conditions across large parts of the Northern Hemisphere were fueled by human-induced climate change. The result also gives us an insight on what is looming ahead. With further global warming we can expect stronger and more frequent droughts in the future,” Dominik Schumacher, researcher at ETH Zurich and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.