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WEATHER

Why parts of Spain are the driest they’ve been in 1,200 years

Parts of Spain and Portugal are the driest they've been in over 1,000 years, according to research published on Monday which warns of severe implications for wine and olive production in the Iberian Peninsula.

Why parts of Spain are the driest they've been in 1,200 years
Iberian agricultural production is one "of the most vulnerable in Europe" according to the latest scientific research. (Photo by JOSE LUIS ROCA / AFP)

The Azores High, an area of high pressure that rotates clockwise over parts of the North Atlantic, has a major effect on weather and long term climate trends in western Europe.

But in a new modelling study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers in the United States found this high-pressure system “has changed dramatically in the past century and that these changes in North Atlantic climate are unprecedented within the past millennium”.

Using climate model simulations over the last 1,200 years, the study found that this high-pressure system started to grow to cover a greater area around 200 years ago, as human greenhouse gas pollution began to increase.

It expanded even more dramatically in the 20th century in step with global warming.

The authors then looked at evidence of rainfall levels preserved over hundreds of years in Portuguese stalagmites, and found that as the Azores High has expanded, the winters in the western Mediterranean have become drier.

The study cites projections that the level of precipitation could fall a further 10 to 20 percent by the end of this century, which the authors say would make Iberian agriculture “some of the most vulnerable in Europe”.

They warn that the Azores High will continue to expand during the 21st century as greenhouse gas levels rise, leading to an increasing risk of drought on the Iberian Peninsula and threatening key crops.

“Our findings have important implications for projected changes in western Mediterranean hydroclimate throughout the twenty-first century,” the authors said.

researchers have predicted a 30-percent drop in production for olive regions in southern Spain by 2100. (Photo by RAYMOND ROIG / AFP)

Wither on the vines

The Azores High acts as a “gatekeeper” for rainfall into Europe, according to the study, with dry air descending in the summer months to cause hot, arid conditions in much of Portugal, Spain and the western Mediterranean.

In the cool, wetter winter period, the high-pressure system swells, sending westerly winds carrying rain inland.   

This winter rain is “vital” for both the ecological and economic health of the region, but it has been decreasing, particularly over the second half of the 20th century.

While previous research had not untangled the effects of natural variability on the Azores High, the authors said their findings show its expansion during the industrial era is linked to the rise of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

A study cited in the latest research estimates that the area suitable for grape growing in the Iberian Peninsula could shrink by at least a quarter and potentially vanish almost completely by 2050 because of severe water shortages.

Meanwhile, researchers have predicted a 30-percent drop in production for olive regions in southern Spain by 2100.

Winemakers are already looking for ways to adapt to the changing climate, such as moving vineyards to higher altitudes and experimenting with more heat-tolerant varieties.

Last year, scientists found that a severe spring frost that ravaged grape vines in France was made more likely by climate change, with the plants budding earlier and therefore more susceptible to damage.

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WILDFIRES

‘Thousands of hectares’ destroyed by wildfire in Spain

Firefighters were battling strong winds Monday as a huge forest fire burnt out of control in southeastern Spain while another blaze in the north was stabilised.

'Thousands of hectares' destroyed by wildfire in Spain

Both fires broke out late Saturday, with more than 350 firefighters engaged against the wildfire in the northern Aragon region that has so far devastated an area of 6,000 hectares forcing at least 1,500 people from their homes.

But as they managed to steady the Aragon blaze after successfully preventing it from entering a protected nature reserve, the wildfire in the southeastern Valencia region continued to spread.

READ ALSO: Are Spain’s wildfires a risk to people’s health?

The Aragon emergency services estimate “thousands” of hectares have been destroyed by the fire.

The “rapid spread” of the flames, stoked by winds, is “critical”, the regional president, Javier Lamban, told media.

Spain has faced 388 wildfires since the start of the year, fuelled by scorching temperatures and drought conditions.

The blazes have destroyed 261,930 hectares in Spain this year, more than in any other country in Europe, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System.

Fires in the South fanned by winds

Hundreds of firefighters backed by 25 planes and helicopters were tackling the flames in the Vall de Ebo, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the coastal resort of Benidorm.

So far, more than 6,500 hectares of land have been destroyed and more than 1,200 fled from their homes, with firefighting efforts complicated by strong winds in terrain that is difficult to access, the regional administration said.

“It is a very complex fire and very complicated terrain. We evacuated more than 1,000 people yesterday and last night, we had to evacuate 70 or 80 more homes,” regional emergency chief Jose Maria Angel told Cadena SER radio saying the fire’s perimeter was “progressively increasing”.

Scientists say human-induced climate change is making extreme weather events including heatwaves and droughts more frequent and more intense. They in turn increase the risk of fires, which emit climate heating greenhouse gases.

READ ALSO: What to do and what to avoid if you witness a forest fire in Spain

Fires have blazed in other European countries including France, Greece and Portugal, making 2022 a record year for wildfire activity on the continent.

What causes forest fires?

According to the latest data from the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, there were at least 179 people investigated and arrested for intentionally starting fires in the first half of 2022.

The most common reasons that have been revealed by the Forest Fire Statistics (EGIF) from the Ministry of Agriculture are to remove scrub and agricultural waste, to regenerate grass for livestock, pyromaniacs, vandalism and to making hunting easier.

READ MORE: Why are there so many forest fires in Spain?

Of course, not all forest fires in Spain are started deliberately. The high temperatures, winds and dry plant material, due to lack of rain in summer, all provide the perfect ingredients for fires across the country.

Declining rural populations in some of Spain’s regions are also causing more fires as fields are abandoned and plant life is left to grow wild. There are also fewer farm animals to help clear the land of scrub.

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