UK drought: are farmers facing the crop failures of 1976 all over again?

July 2022 was the driest July in England since 1935. Combined with record-breaking temperatures, we are hearing talk of a drought comparable to the great drought of 1976, with fears of disruptions to public water supply and poor crop yields, especially for fruit and vegetables. But not all droughts are the same, and not all farmers are affected by the same type of drought.

To a meteorologist, drought is usually defined as a period of significantly below-average rainfall. However, low rainfall even over a whole season does not necessarily mean the water supply will run low, or that industry or agriculture will suffer since there could be lots of water already stored in reservoirs and groundwater.

Of course, such reserves are little help for grassland, cereals, and other crops that are entirely rain-fed and are badly impacted when we get a dry spring and summer. The past 12 months have been particularly dry over much of the UK, and since May 2021, only October and February have recorded above-average rainfall.

Things are even worse if combined with the high temperatures and plentiful sunshine we have seen this year, which increases evaporation and depletes soils of the water required for plant growth – a so-called “agricultural drought.”

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