Quantifying impacts of the 2018 drought on European ecosystems in comparison to 2003

Buras, Allan; Rammig, Anja; Zang, Christian S.

In recent decades, an increasing persistence of atmospheric circulation patterns has been observed. In the course of the associated long-lasting anticyclonic summer circulations, heatwaves and drought spells often coincide, leading to so-called hotter droughts. Previous hotter droughts caused a decrease in agricultural yields and an increase in tree mortality. Thus, they had a remarkable effect on carbon budgets and negative economic impacts. Consequently, a quantification of ecosystem responses to hotter droughts and a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms are crucial. In this context, the European hotter drought of the year 2018 may be considered a key event. As a first step towards the quantification of its causes and consequences, we here assess anomalies of atmospheric circulation patterns, maximum temperature, and climatic water balance as potential drivers of ecosystem responses which are quantified by remote sensing using the MODIS vegetation indices (VIs) normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and enhanced vegetation index (EVI). To place the drought of 2018 within a climatological context, we compare its climatic features and remotely sensed ecosystem response with the extreme hot drought of 2003. The year 2018 was characterized by a climatic dipole, featuring extremely hot and dry weather conditions north of the Alps but comparably cool and moist conditions across large parts of the Mediterranean. Analysing the ecosystem response of five dominant land cover classes, we found significant positive effects of climatic water balance on ecosystem VI response. Negative drought impacts appeared to affect an area 1.5 times larger and to be significantly stronger in July 2018 compared to August 2003, i.e. at the respective peak of drought. Moreover, we found a significantly higher sensitivity of pastures and arable land to climatic water balance compared to forests in both years. We explain the stronger coupling and higher sensitivity of ecosystem response in 2018 by the prevailing climatic dipole: while the generally water-limited ecosystems of the Mediterranean experienced above-average climatic water balance, the less drought-adapted ecosystems of central and northern Europe experienced a record hot drought. In conclusion, this study quantifies the drought of 2018 as a yet unprecedented event, outlines hotspots of drought-impacted areas in 2018 which should be given particular attention in follow-up studies, and provides valuable insights into the heterogeneous responses of the dominant European ecosystems to hotter drought.

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Buras, Allan / Rammig, Anja / Zang, Christian S.: Quantifying impacts of the 2018 drought on European ecosystems in comparison to 2003. 2020. Copernicus Publications.

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