Detecting the human fingerprint in the summer 2022 western-central European soil drought

Dominik L. Schumacher*, Mariam Zachariah, Friederike Otto, Clair Barnes, Sjoukje Philip, Sarah Kew, Maja Vahlberg, Roop Singh, Dorothy Heinrich, Julie Arrighi, Maarten Van Aalst, Mathias Hauser, Martin Hirschi, Verena Bessenbacher, Lukas Gudmundsson, Hiroko K. Beaudoing, Matthew Rodell, Sihan Li, Wenchang Yang, Gabriel A. VecchiLuke J. Harrington, Flavio Lehner, Gianpaolo Balsamo, Sonia I. Seneviratne

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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In the 2022 summer, western-central Europe and several other regions in the northern extratropics experienced substantial soil moisture deficits in the wake of precipitation shortages and elevated temperatures. Much of Europe has not witnessed a more severe soil drought since at least the mid-20th century, raising the question whether this is a manifestation of our warming climate. Here, we employ a well-established statistical approach to attribute the low 2022 summer soil moisture to human-induced climate change using observation-driven soil moisture estimates and climate models. We find that in western-central Europe, a June-August root zone soil moisture drought such as in 2022 is expected to occur once in 20 years in the present climate but would have occurred only about once per century during preindustrial times. The entire northern extratropics show an even stronger global warming imprint with a 20-fold soil drought probability increase or higher, but we note that the underlying uncertainty is large. Reasons are manifold but include the lack of direct soil moisture observations at the required spatiotemporal scales, the limitations of remotely sensed estimates, and the resulting need to simulate soil moisture with land surface models driven by meteorological data. Nevertheless, observation-based products indicate long-term declining summer soil moisture for both regions, and this tendency is likely fueled by regional warming, while no clear trends emerge for precipitation. Finally, our climate model analysis suggests that under 2C global warming, 2022-like soil drought conditions would become twice as likely for western-central Europe compared to today and would take place nearly every year across the northern extratropics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-154
Number of pages24
JournalEarth System Dynamics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Feb 2024


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