High Soil Moisture Will Temper Impact of Europe’s Heat Wave

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Western Europe is bracing for an alarming heat wave this week, but the timing of the wave and good soil moisture levels should help protect crops if temperatures moderate in a few days.

Temperatures could peak above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Concerns are widespread, after a 2003 heat wave was linked to 70,000 deaths. With the heat wave centered on France, Europe’s largest wheat producer, milling wheat futures prices rallied Monday on the Euronext exchange. However, the most susceptible crops are likely to be corn and sugar beets, not winter wheat, rapeseed or barley. And if the temperature spikes for just three or four days, as is currently expected, the impact on agriculture should be limited.

The maps above show pixel-level daily maximum temperature forecasts for Western Europe for this week. The data are from Gro’s soon-to-be-added Global Forecast System (GFS) data series from the US National Weather Service.

Western Europe’s winter crops have fared very well so far this year. Generally warm winter temperatures limited frost damage and allowed an earlier start to spring growth. Dry pockets developed in areas of Germany in May, but timely rains brought relief. With farmers set to ramp up their winter crop harvest in July, soil moisture levels in France are currently right at the top end of the seasonal range. The USDA currently projects a 12% increase in EU wheat production this year after a poor crop in 2018.

Corn and sugar beet crops, however, are just beginning to develop. Corn, in particular, enters its key pollination phase in July, and high heat could impact the few areas where pollination has begun. But good soil moisture levels can go a long way to balance the effect of heat.

Looking back at previous heat events in Europe in 2003 and 2015 shows impact on all major crops in 2003. But the timing of the 2015 heat wave allowed wheat and barley to post record yields, even though corn and sugar beets suffered.

This week’s heat wave comes at a relatively convenient time for Western Europe’s major crops. With good soil moisture, the heat will likely just push winter wheat, barley, and rapeseed crops to maturity a bit faster. And the heat comes just ahead of the key pollination phase for corn in the region. However, if the excessive heat continues into July, the impact on corn and sugar beets could be significant. And if the heat is a sign of a larger, long-term shift in European temperatures, then crop planting patterns may eventually need to adjust.

The chart on the left below shows historical yields for major crops produced in France. A 2003 heat wave brought widespread impact. In 2015, a July heat wave cut corn and sugar beet yields but came too late to diminish record wheat and barley yields. On the right, 2019 soil moisture levels (seen in bold) are shown in the context of the seasonal range over the past decade. Current levels are on the high end of the range for late June.

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