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26.08.2022

How does climate change cause droughts?

A dry desert-like landscape. Climate change can cause both floods and droughts.

How you can drought-proof your garden

It’s been a very hot summer so far – so hot in fact, that record-breaking temperatures of over 40C were experienced here in the UK. Since then, we have had almost solidly hot and sunny weather with 26% less rainfall than expected – very unusual for the UK! But why are we having such a hot and dry summer? 

It’s clear that the climate is changing – temperatures all over the world have been rising and erratic weather patterns have followed, including droughts and flooding.

What is a drought?

As of this week, large parts of the UK have been declared by the Environment Agency to be in a drought, including: 

  • Devon and Cornwall
  • East Anglia
  • Herts and North London
  • Kent and South London
  • Lincolnshire
  • Northamptonshire and East Midlands
  • Solent and South Downs
  • Thames
  • Yorkshire

The drought status is based on the amount of rainfall we have (or don’t have), soil dryness and levels of rivers and reservoirs. Many local authorities have announced hose pipe and sprinkler bans, which is inconvenient for those with gardens, but it presents an even bigger problem for farmers who rely on regular rainfall to water their crops. Potatoes, onions, broccoli, lettuce and other staple vegetables depend on the usually damp climate of the UK to thrive. Some crops can be watered by hand but this is expensive and time consuming, and in some areas farmers have actually been forbidden to water their crops using water from local rivers. This can lead to some foods becoming harder to get and more expensive.

Farmers with livestock are affected too, as cows and sheep graze on the grass outside during summer, but if the grass has died and dried up, then farmers will need to supplement with extra food, which also impacts the cost of meat.

How does extra CO2 lead to climate change?

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere including methane, nitrous oxide and the biggest contributor, carbon dioxide, make the earth retain more of the sun’s heat. This leads to the earth becoming warmer, and physical effects such as ice caps melting and causing sea levels to rise. It’s true that changes in the earth’s climate are natural, and we are moving away from an ice age, but greenhouse gases appear to be causing this to happen 10 times faster than expected.

How can climate change be causing both droughts and floods? 

It seems counterintuitive that droughts can lead to flooding, after all, isn’t there less water? But the dry ground caused by hot weather means that flooding is more likely. The hot and dry weather has effectively ‘baked’ the ground, so that when rain does eventually fall, it will not soak into the ground and instead just flows off, leading to flash floods. Grass and other vegetation that would also help the soil to absorb water are now dried up, so they won’t be as effective.

Global warming can also lead to heavier rains, as the warmed atmosphere increases the air’s capacity to retain moisture, and more water is evaporated from the sea and other bodies of water. This results in short but intense rainfall which is more likely to cause flooding. Also, rising sea levels mean that more seawater is pushed onto the land during coastal storms.

Other effects of heatwaves & droughts

During the current drought affecting the UK and Europe, hydropower from dams has dropped 20% due to decreased water levels in rivers and reservoirs. Hydropower is always fairly volatile, but this drought will have an impact on the amount of electricity produced in Norway, Italy and other countries. Energy generated by solar power has also been reduced, as solar panels work less efficiently in temperatures higher than 25C.

It’s not just renewable energy sources that have been hit – reactors in nuclear power plants have to be cooled, often using water from nearby rivers. The rivers have run so dry that the plants cannot safely operate, and as such, many are offline right now in France, where the UK gets much of its electricity.

Insects are massively affected by heatwaves and droughts. Bees and other pollinators suffer in the heat and can collapse and die if they get too hot. They also need water and during droughts, many water sources they rely on like rivers, lakes and ponds may be smaller or even dry up completely. They also rely on nectar from flowers to survive, and many flowering plants produce less nectar or even dry up completely during heatwaves and droughts, reducing the amount of food available to them. The loss of pollinators and other insects will have a knock-on effect on other species – including us.

How you can drought proof your garden

Local councils have advised people to save water where they can, by fixing leaks and dripping taps, or ensuring the washing machine only does full loads, but that doesn’t help your garden when there is a hosepipe ban in place. Here are some tips on keeping your garden green and lush, thus providing a haven for insects and wildlife as well as absorbing rain when it does occur, avoiding floods.

  • Use mulch around plants to retain moisture in the soil, such as wood chips
  • Keep soil healthy by mixing in compost, which improves water retention
  • Water plants early in the morning to avoid too much evaporation – night watering can lead to fungus and encourage slugs and snails
  • Allow your lawn to grow long, so its roots can go down further
  • Save water from your kitchen when washing fruit and veg to water plants 
  • Install a covered water butt to collect water when it does rain
  • Avoid pots and plant directly into the earth, allowing the plants to develop long tap roots and access underground water
  • Plant drought resistant plants such as lavender and passionflower, which also provide food for pollinators 
  • Leave a shallow dish of water out for insects and other wildlife to drink from

Sources:

https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/climate-change-evidence-causes/question-13/

https://climate.nasa.gov/news/3117/drought-makes-its-home-on-the-range/

https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/drought-and-climate-change

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-62524551

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/25/uk-drought-extreme-heat-dry

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-62298430

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-62575247

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