Drought of 2003


Drought Event Summary

The 2003 drought event is considered exceptional for Europe, combining significant precipitation deficits with record-setting heat extremes, which increased evapotranspiration. At its peak, nearly all of Europe was in drought, except for the Iberian peninsula and the far eastern Mediterranean. As a consequence, large losses in crop yield and extremely low discharge levels of rivers were reported in large parts of Europe

Drought Statistics

Approx. duration: 4/2003-11/2003

Date of SPI-6 min: 12/8/2003

Affected regions: Europe

Climatological Drought

The 2003 drought event began with a precipitation deficit in Scandinavia in early spring. This precipitation deficit expanded until in June 2003 the centre was located in Poland. Climatological drought remained moderate through June until July, when the extent and severity of the precipitation deficit rapidly expanded to cover most of Europe. This rapid expansion of drought was caused by a persistent blocking high-pressure pattern that lingered over western Europe.

The most severe precipitation deficits, which occurred in July and August of 2003, were accompanied by the warmest temperatures ever recorded in Europe at that point. This greatly increased evapotranspiration, reducing available water.

The meteorological drought began to quickly recede in late September and October, with drought conditions only remaining in northern Italy and southern France.

Progression of climatological (SPI-6) drought. Climatological drought is defined by the SPI-6, which sums precipitation over the previous 6 months and transforms this value to the standard normal distribution. Negative SPI values (shown in red) represent dry conditions, measured in standard deviations from typical conditions. Percent area in drought is calculated by summing all cells less than the 20th percentile (SPI < -0.84).

Drought Impacts

In terms of impacts the European drought of 2003 affected an area spreading from Portugal to Romania and Bulgaria (Demuth, 2009; EEA, 2010). It was characterized by diverse and far reaching effects resulting from an exceptional rainfall deficit combined with extended heat wave conditions (EurAqua, 2004).

Agriculture was particularly affected in Southern and Central Europe: French, Italian, German, Austrian, Swiss, Slovakian, Spanish and Portuguese agriculture but also Eastern countries have been among the most affected by the drought and the heat wave in 2003 (COPA-COGECA, 2004; Swiss Re, 2004). In many countries of the South-Eastern European region, like Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro 2003 was among the major agricultural droughts in recent years (AUA, 2011). The International Disaster Database EM-DAT registered drought disasters in 2003 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Hungary. Significant decreases in yields compared to previous years were common, however with big variations per region. According to COPA-COGECA (2004), European livestock farmers were worst hit due to the big impact on green fodder supply. Agricultural losses were estimated to amount to more than 10 billion Euros (COPA-COGECA, 2004, Swiss Re, 2004). Governmental measures to mitigate the effects for the farmers were taken in several countries and also by the European Commission.

Location of drought impact reports. Darker colors refer to more reported impacts in the EDII. Scroll over each country to see more detail.

Local limitations and serious shortage problems in public water supply were reported for some rural mountainous areas in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany. A few communities and single farms, which had depended exclusively on the use of local spring waters (or traditional private wells), had to be supplied by emergency actions. However, immense demands during the hot summer period, restrictions on water use and abstraction and a strong overall depletion of resources, i.e. dried up springs and boreholes, extremely low groundwater levels and reservoir stocks, were common across Europe. In Eastern Austria authorities initiated the construction of additional (large scale) water supply networks (EurAqua, 2004, see also Bogner, 2004).

At most rivers extreme low flows and, during the heat wave, also extremely high water temperatures were recorded. Thus, the energy sector was challenged by a reduced potential of hydropower production, widespread problems with cooling of nuclear and thermal power plants as well as unusually high demands. Thermal and nuclear power plants throughout Europe had to operate at reduced capacities or even shut down due to the high river water temperatures. In August emergency exemptions from environmental legislation were granted for several power plants in France, the Netherlands and Germany in order to ensure security of supply (avoid disruptions). The situations of power supply in Italy (Cassardo et al. 2007; IReR, 2007) and France (e.g., EC, 2007; UNEP, 2004; Poumadère et al. 2005) were probably the most stressed ones. A series of vulnerabilities was revealed when the national French supplier EDF during the heat wave episode requested temporary exemptions for one third of its nuclear park (Poumadère et al. 2005). Already at the beginning of June there were some unexpected (sometimes long-lasting) blackouts in Italy, due to the increase of electric energy demand above the threshold of productivity, which caused several inconveniences and knock-on losses in industrial activities, e.g. steel production (Cassardo et al., 2007; IReR, 2007).

For months inland navigation was heavily impaired by extreme low flows and water levels of most large rivers in 2003. That affected rivers like the Po, the Elbe or the Oder, where navigation sometimes even ceased completely, but in particular the major European transport routes in the Danube and Rhine basins (EurAqua, 2004; EC/CCR, 2005; Jonkeren et al., 2007; ICPDR; AUA, 2011; Massarutto et al., 2013).

In France, the Netherlands and in Southern England structural damage due to soil shrinkage and subsidence caused considerable costs (EurAqua, 2004; Marsh et al., 2004; Corti et al., 2009). Specifically the collapse of two peat dikes confronted the Netherlands with a new drought phenomenon which raised safety concerns (Ministerie van Verkeer en Waterstaat, 2004; Massarutto et al., 2013).

Freshwater ecosystems were put under exceptional stress, with increased risk to biodiversity loss during 2003 (EurAqua, 2004). Reports on dried up stream sections, extreme water temperatures, violation of minimum flow requirements, temporary water quality deterioration and eutrophication, limited to critical dissolved oxygen concentrations, increased pollution loads, increased mortality and mass kill of fish were widespread (e.g., Massarutto et al., 2013; ICPR, 2004; Lange, 2009; Marsh et al., 2004; BUWAL et al., 2004; EC, 2007). Also several hundreds of death diving ducks in the Netherlands (RIZA et al., 2005) and mass kill of invasive mussel species in German rivers (ICPR, 2004; LfU, 2004) were among the spectacular events attributed to the drought in 2003. In many regions of Switzerland as well as in parts of Southern Germany the authorities released bans on water abstraction from small streams for irrigation purposes during the low flow period in 2003 which sometimes led to conflicts with farmers as well as illegal abstractions (Massarutto et al., 2013; BUWAL et al., 2004; LfU, 2004; LfW, 2004).

Drought stress to forest ecosystems in 2003 is considered to be a major explanation for the increased defoliation of broadleaved species observed in 2004 especially in Central Europe and particularly pronounced for common beech (UNECE, 2005). Increased dieback and susceptibility to pest infestations were also frequently reported (Rouault et al., 2006). In Southern Europe the summer of 2003 was one of the most severe forest fire seasons experienced during the last decades with the greatest severity mostly concentrated in Portugal and France (EC, 2004). In total the exceptionally dry and warm conditions resulted in over 25,000 reported heath and forest fires from Portugal to Ireland and Finland (EurAqua, 2004).

Impact Detail Table

Drought Event Country Start Date End Date Impact Impact Category Impact Description NUTS 1 NUTS 2 NUTS 3 Reference
2003 Europe Hrvatska 2/2003 5/2003 1.9 Increased costs/economic losses drought losses of 2000000000 HRK