Germany is the largest national economy in Europe and the fourth-largest in the world. It is a well-known and innovative manufacturer, a center of art and culture, home to Alpine vistas and thriving cities, and one of the globe’s great beer-makers. And it’s in trouble.
Climate change is transforming Germany’s environment and future – and for the nation’s nearly 83 million citizens, making climate solutions a priority could mean the difference between a bright, sustainable future… and something very different.
From extreme heat and powerful storms to related public health and food security concerns, this world leader is far from invulnerable to the impacts of our warming world. Read on to see what the climate crisis looks like in Germany.
Like so much of the planet, Germany has seen its number of extremely hot days increase across the last several decades, with the number of days where temps exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) rising from three per year to eight.
And its major cities, including Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, cannot escape the “urban heat island effect.” This happens when natural landscapes are replaced with buildings and asphalt streets that absorb and store more heat, making cities warmer than surrounding areas. In the summertime, temperatures in German cities can climb as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than in the country’s rural areas.
But even in those rural or mountainous areas of the country, like Bavaria and the Rhineland, where temperatures are rising more slowly, the consequences of even a fairly minor increase may ultimately be disastrous.
“Mild temperatures will mean the end of Alpine glaciers by the end of this century. They will melt away due to the higher temperatures, causing flooding at that time,” according to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international public broadcaster. “But rivers like the Rhine, which depend on glacial melt, will turn into a trickle of their former strength.”
Major rivers shrinking could have a serious impact on everything from German agriculture to energy production. Power plants extract water from nearby rivers as part of their necessary cooling systems. However, if river water is already too warm – or the water levels in summer are too low (more on that below) – a lack of sufficient cooling water could result in functionality problems for power plants across the country.
FLOODING AND DROUGHT
So while heat itself is a concern for the EU nation, that problem is in many ways dwarfed by the resulting changes in precipitation.
A study by the Climate Service Center Germany (GERICS) discovered, according to Phys.org, that “precipitation in Germany has increased by 11 percent since 1881 – and according to the forecasts, this trend is set to continue. It now rains considerably more in winter almost everywhere in Germany; in some cases, precipitation volumes have increased by as much as 30 percent in the cold season. In contrast, summers in many Federal States have become dryer.”
Those dryer summers – particularly at a time of overall warming – could be a major concern, because below-average rainfall naturally increases the probability and duration of forest fires.
This is a particular worry for areas like the Alps, where snowpack is melting ever-earlier as unseasonably warm temperatures begin earlier in the spring and creep deeper into the fall. Keeping in mind that forests are considered combustible about a month after the snowmelt ends, the result is a much longer than usual period of time when forests are vulnerable to fire. And, with less predictable rains, it’s harder to stop these fires once they begin.
It’s no surprise then that climate change-driven drought and all that comes with it have led to an increased risk of wildfires in the Alps.
At other times of year, however, Germany has suffered from the flip side of what we just described. This was especially true just last year:
“So far the summer has been, at least in terms of weather, one thing above all: extreme. As a result, the German Meteorological Service (DWD) declared July 2017 the rainiest month Germany has seen since measurements thereof began back in 1881.”
Elsewhere, sea level rise and increased storm surge height may cause flooding along the country’s North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts, allowing salt water intrusion into inland areas, potentially contaminating ground and surface freshwaters. The result: Without adaptation, by the 2080s, total losses due to sea level rise in Germany may top 2.6 billion Euros per year.
Extreme heat elevates the rate of death from illnesses like heart attack, heat stroke, organ failure, and more. But in Germany, a more pressing concern will come from diseases spreading as insects travel farther and farther as our climate changes.
“With increasing temperatures, disease carriers (vectors) can migrate into new habitats and thereby extend the regional scope of the diseases they transmit,” writes the nation’s federal environment agency, Umweltbundesamt. “This includes, inter alia, vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks or bugs. … In Germany, especially the generally rising temperatures favor the growth and spread of vectors. Mild winters increase the survival rate of many disease vectors. They cause accelerated generation successions and prolonged annual activity periods.”
In some regions in southern Germany, even truly tropical vectors like the Asian tiger mosquito are spreading – and they’re bringing severe diseases like malaria or dengue fever with them.
Because of the climate crisis, Germans should also expect to see an uptick in asthma and allergies. The science here is true in many places around the globe: With rising temperatures, pollen seasons will start earlier and last longer, and concentrations of ozone and particulate matter in the air will increase.
“The direct health effects caused by higher ozone concentration include irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory reactions such as reduced lung functions, cardiovascular diseases, as well as an impaired physical performance,” according to Umweltbundesamt.
FOOD AND WATER SECURITY
If we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rates, food may become harder and harder to grow in many places. Fresh drinking water could become more and more scarce as polluted floodwater runoff contaminates rivers, lakes, and reservoirs – or drought and warming combine to simply dry it all up.
Like so much of climate change’s story, the threat to food and water security in Germany is a tale of rising temperatures’ impact on the water cycle – something understood all too well by the nation’s government:
“In the context of climate change, the amount of rainfall and its distribution is changing in Germany. This has a direct effect on the temporal and regional availability of water. Altered precipitation leads to fluctuations in soil water and groundwater levels. Thus, the soil quality and productivity of agricultural land are affected. If the temperatures rise at the same time, the consequences for the agricultural production will be even more severe.”
Decreases in summer precipitation by up to 30 percent are expected across Germany by 2080, potentially leading to problematic heat and drought conditions in some areas and resulting in reduced crop yields and poor harvest quality. And with the rising heat and changes in precipitation patterns, previously uncommon plant diseases could become more common.
“As a result of rising temperatures, it is expected that plant diseases and pests so far only found in warmer regions will spread. This has effects on fruit production, for example,” climate scientists in Germany have found. “Thus, the fungal disease apple scab has already led to high quality and yield losses, especially in south-west Germany. Infected plants are less resistant to water and temperature stress and thus more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”
BE PART OF THE CHANGE WE NEED
The point is, climate change touches every aspect of our lives – in Germany and all over the world. But there’s plenty of good news too: With clean energy solutions like wind and solar getting more affordable, batteries getting better, and buildings becoming more efficient every year, the solutions to this crisis are available to us right now. The sustainable future we want is finally in our hands. And at Climate Reality, we won’t let it slip away.
We’re working to accelerate the global shift from the dirty fossil fuels driving climate change to renewable energies, so we can power our lives and economies without destroying our planet.
If you’re ready to join us, apply to join the Climate Reality Leadership Corps at our upcoming training in Berlin from June 26—28! You'll gain the practical skills, knowledge, and network to organize and lead your community in the fight against climate change.
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