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Early warning system to counter droughts

Jennifer Collins
March 26, 2019

In 2018, record drought across Germany caused crop failures and left farmers struggling. Germany's meteorological office says the droughts were not a once off and is setting up an early warning system to help farmers.

Trockenheit und Dürre in Deutschland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska

The year 2018 was a bad one for German farmers. A record drought resulted in major crop failures, leading the German government to designate the event a crisis of "national dimensions".

Some 8,000 farmers were forced to apply for emergency aid due to a record dry period between April and November. Just 60 percent of the usual yearly precipitation fell over the whole year, according to new figures from Germany's National Meteorological Office (DWD).

Eberhard Hartelt, president of the farmers and vintners association (BWV) in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate and a farmer himself, called it a "catastrophic drought," the likes of which he had never experienced.

"The entire fall sowing season took place in bone-dry soil … I had to resow the fields because no rapeseed would grow as there was no moisture in the soil," Hartelt told DW, adding this will likely affect his harvest and income in 2019.

Read more: Germany's farmers feel the heat of climate change

A picture of earth from space
A picture taken from the International Space Station in 2018 shows brown, dried out fields of Europe, including Germany Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ESA/A. Gerst

The grain farmer hopes 2018 was an exception not soon to be repeated, otherwise he says the outlook for German agriculture is grim.

But climate change means more frequent droughts and extreme weather events in Germany, DWD vice president Paul Becker told DW.

"Last year was an exceptional year, but it fits the overall picture of more extreme weather events, which is exactly what we expect from climate change," said Becker.

That's why Germany's meteorological office has developed a new long-term prognosis tool that would forecast soil moisture six weeks in advance to warn farmers of potential droughts.

Read more: German astronaut Alexander Gerst shocked by parched Earth images from space

Soil works as a buffer to save plants

Soil moisture is the amount of water stored in soil. It's important because even if it hasn't rained significantly for weeks in summer, plants will be able to survive and grow thanks to the water from winter and spring rainfalls stored in the dirt. Essentially it acts as a buffer to help plants over long dry periods.

Precipitation, temperature and sunshine all affect soil moisture. In 2018, the combination of record sunshine hours — and their evaporating effects — the lack of rainfall and warmer-than-average temperature caused unusually dry soil conditions.

According to DWD, there was a Germany-wide average of 20 "hot days" — days with an air temperature of 30 degrees Celsius plus (86 degrees Fahrenheit) — beating the record of 19 in 2003. And with 2,015 hours of sunshine, 2018 also beat 2003 as the sunniest year since records began in 1951. 

Read more: Climate change prompts Berlin to rethink water strategy

Crucially, the lack of rainfall made 2018 the fourth-driest since 1881. That meant in June, field capacity — or soil moisture supply — was at 43 percent, sinking to "extremely low values of 30 percent" by September, according to DWD research. And even though January and December 2018 saw above average precipitation, this wasn't enough to make up for the long drought.

"That's clearly too little and lead to significant drought damage," Becker told DW.

A dried out riverbed with a bridge in the background
Even parts of the mighty Rhine river in western Germany dried out in 2018 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gerten

Becker says soil moisture levels stay relatively stable and aren't affected if it rains or doesn't rain for a day or two. That characteristic makes it ideal for more accurate forecasts weeks in advance.

"Precipitation forecasts are always tough, particularly forecasts beyond a week … If we look at soil moisture then it's much easier to forecast," added Becker.

He believes the tool would have foretold the 2018 drought and says it will help farmers prepare weeks in advance of a drought by adjusting fertilizer and water use.

"It will help people prepare even if it can't stave off the actual danger," said Becker.

Climate change: A looming problem

BMV president and farmer Hartelt does think the DWD's improved forecast system could help farmers to adapt and react.

"Prognosis models can be polished and improved and that is certainly a help, but it is of limited help," he said. "It doesn't help us in tackling the problem of climate change," he added.

Read more: Climate change sets the world on fire

Agriculture, while it might be contributing to climate change, is also one of its main casualties, Hartelt said. By August 2018, the drought caused an eight million ton drop in grain yields in Germany alone, knocking €1.4 billion off industry revenues.

Two hands holding an ear of corn
A farmer in the eastern German state of Saxony shows the inside of a dried up ear of cornImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska

Huge adaptation measures are required if Germany wants to ensure food security well into the future. Hartelt says the industry needs to look at different varieties of fruit and grains that are drought-resistant and ensure that farming is gentle on soil and careful when it comes to water use. Developing better watering and water storage systems are a must, he added.

"The big difficulty is that these measures cost a lot of money and investment, but with sinking revenues and food prices that's very difficult to reconcile," said Hartelt.

On the other hand, considering the major losses in 2018, farmers can't afford not to adapt.