Large increases of multi-year droughts in north-western Europe in a warmer climate

Karin van der Wiel*, Thomas J. Batelaan, Niko Wanders

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Three consecutive dry summers in western Europe (2018–2019–2020) had widespread negative impacts on society and ecosystems, and started societal debate on (changing) drought vulnerability and adaptation measures. We investigate the occurrence of multi-year droughts in the Rhine basin, with a focus on event probability in the present and in future warmer climates. Additionally, we investigate the temporally compounding physical drivers of multi-year drought events. A combination of multiple reanalysis datasets and multi-model large ensemble climate model simulations was used to provide a robust analysis of the statistics and physical processes of these rare events. We identify two types of multi-year drought events (consecutive meteorological summer droughts and long-duration hydrological droughts), and show that these occur on average about twice in a 30 year period in the present climate, though natural variability is large (zero to five events can occur in a single 30 year period). Projected decreases in summer precipitation and increases in atmospheric evaporative demand, lead to a doubling of event probability at 1 C additional global warming relative to present-day and an increase in the average length of events. Consecutive meteorological summer droughts are forced by two, seemingly independent, summers of lower than normal precipitation and higher than normal evaporative demand. The soil moisture response to this temporally compound meteorological forcing has a clear multi-year imprint, resulting in a relatively larger reduction of soil moisture content in the second year of drought, and potentially more severe drought impacts. Long-duration hydrological droughts start with a severe summer drought followed by lingering meteorologically dry conditions. This limits and slows down the hydrological recovery of soil moisture content, leading to long-lasting drought conditions. This initial exploration provides avenues for further investigation of multi-year drought hazard and vulnerability in the region, which is advised given the projected trends and vulnerability of society and ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1781–1800
Number of pages20
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


  • Climate change
  • Compound event
  • Drought
  • Large ensemble
  • Multi-year


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