But all over the Iberian Peninsula and much of southern Europe, these scenes are becoming all too familiar even during the winter months. There was a time when devastating scenes of extreme drought were only witnessed in far away lands such Africa or Australia. But when I travelled around southern Europe earlier this year, I was taken aback by how widespread droughts have become especially in many parts of southern Iberia.

During a walk to a barragem in the Alentejo region, it was very sobering to see how precariously low water levels had fallen. The catchment looked less than a third full, possibly even less. I saw the remains of dead trees trapped in the dry, crazed mud which had once formed the bottom of the deep lake. I even came across the rotting hull of a long sunk rowing boat which had made an unexpected reappearance many decades after it had been lost to the murky depths. Its owner's name 'Carlos' was still engraved into the wooden seat. The old boat served as a frightening reminder that severe and unseasonal droughts are getting a bit too close to home for comfort.

Today’s drought

Both Spain and Portugal are said to be enduring the driest climate for at least 1,200 years. I have no idea how anyone knows, for sure, what the climate was doing back then; but this is what we're being told by the experts. Personally I'm not too worried about what was going on 1,200 years ago but quite frankly it's comforting to know that such extremes have occurred before. I think we can be certain that the ancient droughts had little to do with road traffic or airliners. My concern is that today's drought, should it persist, has potentially severe implications for food production and tourism. With a growing population, the world can ill afford to lose essential food production capacity.

As a rule of thumb, the majority of the Iberian Peninsula's rain falls during the winter months. Low-pressure systems hurtle in off the Atlantic Ocean and dump precious moisture over the land mass. This keeps healthy crops growing and helps keep a growing population fed.

However, when high-pressure systems (known as Azores highs) are anchored stubbornly off the Iberian coast, they tend to block moisture-bearing fronts from sweeping across Spain and Portugal. The few that do manage to break through tend to largely fizzle out before they make landfall and therefore don't generate as much useful rain as they otherwise might.

Research scientists have discovered that winters with unusually strong Azores high pressure systems have increased from 10 percent (two hundred years ago) to over 25 percent in modern times. They also found that these high pressure systems tend to push more wet weather northwards, making downpours in the UK's north West and northern Europe more commonplace and extreme. This has caused more frequent flooding events in parts of the UK and Ireland. So "the rain of Spain falls mainly in Wales. Cumbria and Scandinavia" leaving the "plains of Spain" looking distinctly parched.

Iberian drought

Scientists attribute the prevalence and the increasing strength of Azores highs for the current Iberian drought, blaming these environmental anomalies on anthropogenic carbon emissions. It has been observed that the prevalence of stubborn Azores highs during the last hundred years have been unprecedented compared with how things might have looked over the previous thousand years. If these trends continue, the implications are potentially disastrous for Iberia and many other Mediterranean lands.

Iberia has been badly hit by increasingly frequent heatwaves and droughts over the past few years. This May (2022) proved to be the hottest ever recorded in Spain. Many of us still won't have forgotten the terrible forest fires that killed dozens of people in 2017. Environmentalists fear that the River Tagus might face the risk of drying up completely as more and more demands are made of its waters upstream.

Now for the complicated bit. Researchers have produced data going back hundreds of years using computer generated models. The findings revealed that before 1850 (the beginning of significant industrial revolution gas emissions) large Azores high pressure systems only occurred once every ten years on average. But after 1980, this figure jumped to once every four years. Scientists concluded that extremely large Azores highs slash the average rainfall during the winter months by over 33 percent. Also, analysing chemical data taken from stalagmites found in some Portuguese caves, has proven that low rainfall figures correlate with the presence of large Azores highs.

Serious implications

These findings mean there are serious implications for water resources throughout the Iberian Peninsula. There could be some very real consequences impacting future water availability for agriculture as well as other water intensive industries such as tourism. So far, the findings don't bode well because Spain is ranked as the second most popular country for overseas tourism in 2019 (before the pandemic) hosting an astonishing 85-million visitors. They use a lot of water per capita.

When it comes to agriculture, Spain is the world’s biggest olive producer. The country is also grows a lot of grapes, oranges, tomatoes and many other fruit and vegetable staples which regularly appear on our supermarket shelves. However, rainfall has been declining by 5mm to 10mm a year since the 1950's with an anticipated further ten to twenty percent drop in winter rains by the end of this century.

Computerised simulations of the Earth's climate over the past millennium cover a period leading up to 2005. Other simulations provide data that cover more recent years. They all demonstrate that Azores highs are expected to continue to expand. Clearly this will further increase drought events on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

Whilst all of this stuff seems to present a depressingly cataclysmic overview, it's difficult to ignore the facts when we see the evidence first hand. It's there for all to see if we only open our eyes. We needn't rely on any potentially 'biased' third party accounts or analyses.

Recent geopolitical events have definitely prompted world leaders to think a lot more carefully about our use of fossil fuels and our overreliance on unstable supplies and suppliers. It's clear there have long been measures and solutions available to help mitigate our world's growing environmental woes. It's a shame that the agenda has only started to budge now that we're feeling the end of a proverbial barrel pressed against our temples.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing but rather than acting more swiftly in the spirit of prevention being infinitely preferable to a cure, we've all been guilty of gross complacency when it comes to the environment. But now, the writing is on the wall and the world is clearly not in a particularly good place. Today's woes represent a timely shot across the bow. We ignore that at our peril.


Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring. 

Douglas Hughes