Shocking satellite images show the impact of extreme drought on the world’s rivers

A painful lack of rain combined with relentless heat waves has caused China’s Poyang Lake to shrink in length and width.

Dramatic satellite images taken over the course of a year show how the lake, which averages about 3,500 sq km in peak season, has shrunk amid the recent drought, when a large swath of the country saw 70 days of intense heat.

The drying up of the freshwater lake also forced crews to dig trenches to keep water flowing to irrigate crops, as the lake’s reduced water cover in Jiangxi province also cut off irrigation channels to neighboring farmland in one of the key rice-growing regions in China .

Rising temperatures sparked mountain fires, forcing about 1,500 people in southwestern China to evacuate.

The drought also caused rivers, including the Yangtze, to shrink, thus affecting cargo traffic. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the river has seen 80 percent less rainfall, causing several nearby factories to shut down due to a lack of hydroelectric power at the Three Gorges Dam.

“What we experienced this summer is what climate scientists are telling us is going to happen in the future,” Christine Colvin, director of advocacy for the nonprofit The Rivers Trust, told Climate Change News. “This summer fits the predictions we have for a hotter and drier future.”

China’s Poyang Lake as seen on August 8, 2021

(Planet Labs PBC)

China’s Poyang Lake as seen on August 22, 2022

(Planet Labs PBC)

China is not the only country seeing dried up lakes and shrinking rivers.

Satellite images taken by Planet, a company providing global daily satellite data, show scorching heat waves and persistent drought changing the western European landscape, including the drying up of the Rhine River in Germany’s Düsseldorf and the Loire River in France.

The Rhine River near Düsseldorf, Germany on August 14, 2021

(Planet Labs PBC)

Satellite image of the Rhine River in Germany on August 13, 2022

(Planet Labs PBC)

Predominantly green in August 2021, the Rhine River appeared almost full to the brim in satellite images. But this year the park grass is visibly brown and the previously submerged banks of the river can be seen.

“If the Rhine drops further, barges may be unable to navigate the low water level, hampering the transport of goods to and from Germany’s industrial heartland,” the group warned in a post on its website.

Satellite images of the Loire River also show a sharp reduction in its tributaries, as well as the green cover in the ecosystem around it.

The Loire River near Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, France, pictured on August 11, 2021.

(Planet Labs PBC)

Low river levels and dry fields along the Loire near Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, France

(Planet Labs PBC)

Famous for hundreds of cattle that grace its banks, water levels in the river this year are so low that even flat-bottomed barges cannot ferry visiting tourists.

The Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site popular for its majestic castles, has seen water levels drop, but this year’s drought should be a wake-up call, said Eric Soquet, head of hydrology at France’s National Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE).

“We have to worry about the Loire,” he told Reuters, explaining the catastrophic impact on aquatic life. “Fish need water to live, cool water. When water levels get that low, their habitat shrinks and they get trapped in puddles,” he explains, adding that the shallow water also makes them easy prey for predators.

“Climate change is underway, that’s undeniable… All users will have to rethink their behavior with regard to water resources,” he added.

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