Germany is currently experiencing a state of meteorological emergency. Although many are enjoying the scorching summer, the heat wave has left others with health problems and also led to a drought. Is this a preview of how climate change may soon change our lives? By DER SPIEGEL Staff
It's early August in Germany, and the country is worried, cantankerous and uncharacteristically sluggish. The country's recent dramatic heatwave has seen the water authority in Chemnitz impose a ban on pumping water out of ponds or other urban waters, with the Chemnitz River only 25 centimeters deep in some places. Those caught taking water can be slapped with fines of up to 50,000 euros.
In Gotteszell in Bavaria, a regional railway line had to be shut down because the tracks warped in the heat. And in the city of Bochum, beer brewer Moritz Fiege had to appeal to customers to return their used bottles because he had run out of bottles and crates.
Meanwhile, at the Berlin Zoo, zookeepers are freezing fish, apples and carrots, so they can provide polar bears with chilled food. And in Hamburg, the Hagenbecks Tierpark zoo has installed lawn sprinklers for its alpacas. Germany in the summer of 2018, feels a bit like a country under a hair dryer. A golden, shimmering summer, as disturbing and strange as it is enjoyable. The sun has been beating down relentlessly and has caused a drought. So, what is this? Is it finally a summer worthy of the name or are we already in the middle of climate change? Is this what the future is going to feel like?
In the city of Kassel, two of the three lanes on the A7 motorway had to be closed because the material began melting in the asphalt joints. In Achim near Bremen, burglars stole ice cream worth 170 euros from a delivery service's freezer. In Hamburg, some indoor swimming pools have been closed so that the staff can be deployed at outdoor swimming pools.
Some are celebrating. The Association of the German Confectionery Industry (BDSI) notes that ice cream sales are up 11 percent over the previous year. As are brewers and operators of solar power plants, which are periodically producing more electricity than 20 nuclear power plants.
Many Questions, But Few Answers
A whole country is decelerating into an almost Mediterranean atmosphere. Much that was important has receded into the background, and people seem mostly interested in weather news, weather tips and weather experts. There are many questions, but surprisingly few answers. The summer is so big and our knowledge about the climate still so limited.
In the meantime, the price of potatoes is climbing on the commodity futures exchange. Temperatures are so hot in the state of Schleswig-Holstein that police are no longer being required to wear their official caps until at least Aug. 10. The drought has meant fewer mosquitoes and fewer weeds because even weeds need water. Electricity is getting more expensive because power plants aren't feeding the warm cooling water into the heated rivers. All in all, it's unbelievable.
When public broadcaster ARD ran a special on the heat last week, airing just after the usual evening news broadcast, it attracted 4.35 million people. The dry season has turned many of us into victims and all of us into witnesses to history in the making.
Germany this August is a country that is slowing down voluntarily in many places, but also coming to an involuntary halt in others. It's a country that is now finding time for the essentials: Time to enjoy things and time to reflect. But is this unusual summer a foretaste of what lies ahead?
Not entirely surprisingly, the science currently available doesn't offer a clear answer to those questions. The climate is a complex thing -- there's more to it than just weather. The climate is a mixture of politics and science, good intentions and scaremongering. Those looking for them can detect patterns everywhere, where others at most observe circumstantial evidence.
Weather, weather experts say, has much to do with psychology. As with earlier disastrous winters, earlier summers of the century are dramatized, romanticized or simply wiped from our memories. In fact, contrary to the perception of many people, the summer of 2018 hasn't even set a new record for a heat wave. Indeed, it has only been since mid-July that temperatures in large parts of Germany have been above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
'Somebody Is Always Complaining'
It is true that the Germans are sweating, but it is also true that there have been times when it was even hotter. During the 2006 World Cup, when the Germans were on a high as hosts of the event, their "summer fairy tale," July was 2 degrees Celsius warmer than it has been this year. And rather than complain about it, people celebrated. Whether temperatures are perceived as invigorating or distressing is highly subjective.
"Somebody is always complaining", says Jörg Kachelmann, Germany's best-known meteorologist. "For some, summer only starts at 35 degrees in the shade, but others consider that to be Saharan heat." In Kachelmann's mind, it's "sheer nonsense." Typically, summers in Germany are known for their capriciousness, and the rollercoaster weather that the tabloids love to report on is perfectly normal.
What makes summer 2018 an exception is the unusually long period of heat. Such a persistent period of fine weather, with lots of sunshine and little rain, occurs on average once every 10 years at most in the country. And given the lack of rain, it's not the heat that's the problem, but the drought -- especially in northern and eastern Germany, where there has been virtually no rainfall in some places since May.
This may be due to climate change, but it may also be unrelated. Germany has also experienced extreme droughts in previous years. In 1992, for example, when wheat withered away in the fields, wells dried up and priests prayed for rain at church services. Or in 1971, when forest fires flared up in many places across the country. Or in 1947, when even drinking water became scarce.
What we do know is this: The reason for this endless summer is a so-called Omega Block. Usually, a strong high-pressure area has already formed by the spring, which is wedged between low pressure areas (the formation gets its name from the fact that it resembles the Greek letter Omega). For months, an omega layer barely moves from the spot. In the manner of a bellows, it temporarily weakens and then quickly rebuilds itself.
This year this stable weather situation arose over Scandinavia. With the sun shining all day long, the dry mainland air has heated up continuously, even in northern Europe. The huge high-pressure cell directs the warm air as far as Germany. On its way south, the warm Scandinavian air hardly barely cools and, as such, forms a heat dome over Germany.
Hotter than Rome
Bernburg in Saxony-Anhalt was the hottest spot in Germany last week. The German Weather Service (DWD) measured 39.5 degrees Celsius on Tuesday: hotter than Rome. Matthias Hirsekorn is the head of the Ameos Hospital in Bernburg. It provides care for people who are unable to cope with the heat. Senior physician Claudia Schmidt works in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Bernburg facility. She has seen how people have literally been dragging themselves to the emergency room in the last few days. Elderly people who have had too little to drink, young people who thought that even in this heat they could go jogging.
The treatment is almost always the same. Schmidt runs tests in order to check electrolyte levels. If necessary, infusions and drinks are administered and the patient is kept in a reasonably cool room. But even that is getting difficult to find. The emergency rooms and operating rooms are, of course, air-conditioned. But the standard patient rooms aren't. There are roller shutters on the windows. In the internal medicine department, they've also installed fans in the corridors. And at night, the nurses become ventilation managers: All the windows have to be opened and then closed again at sunrise.
Typical patients these days include a cyclist riding along the Saale River with little shade, a man who harvested potatoes in the midday heat or people who've drunk beer in the sun and forgotten their hats. Most are treated as outpatients. And drinks and infusions are often enough to get them back on their feet.
Hospital staff can even order special summer uniforms with thinner fabric. They're also provided with free beverages. Hospital director Hirsekorn personally walked through the departments and delivered ice cream to the staff.
Emergency physicians see heat fatigue on a daily basis in midsummer, as well as sunstroke and potentially lethal heat strokes -- often diagnosed in people who have passed out. If a person loses too much salt through sweating, that can also cause a seizure. Joggers, mountain bikers or Nordic walkers are particularly at risk if they continue exercising even when the asphalt is melting outside.
With these temperatures, most emergency calls are placed from retirement homes. A common problem is that there aren't enough caregivers to ensure that the elderly get as much water as they need. The mineral water provided in old people's homes and social services, is often also low in sodium. Tea, coffee and fruit juices are also of little use unless salt is added by other means.
The consequences can be cardiovascular problems, kidney failure and even cardiac arrest. There's a lower risk for most healthy adults in Europe, but the higher temperatures do present a risk, especially in people with pre-exisiting conditions who are over 70. More than 40,000 people died in Western Europe during the last major heat wave in 2003. In Germany alone, 7,000 people died. The victims were mostly elderly, but the heat also killed poor people, homeless, small children and also a large number of people suffering from chronic illness.
Doctors have an unsentimental technical term for the phenomenon: Temperature-related excess mortality.
People taking medication are also at greater risk. Dehydrating drugs, for example for people with heart problems, can cause patients to get dehydrated more quickly. Anti-convulsants and antidepressants can also affect the heat balance. Antihypertensive drugs for lowering blood pressure can also increase the risk of harmful effects from the heat.
The body has a sophisticated system that can withstand even extreme heat. It emits a lot of heat through evaporation, a process better known to us as sweating. Humans have around 2 million sweat glands and can release more than two liters of sweat per hour through them. The less a person replaces the liquids that have been expelled through sweat, the less sweat that person produces.
Are We Peeking at the Future?
Drought affects well-being, but also changes public space: It transforms the landscape from green to yellow and it also causes people to relax their attire and their behavior. The Roman historian Tacitus, who was very familiar with high temperatures, once wrote of the Germans: "Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure."
The summer of 2018 provides a hint of what the future might feel like for us Germans, for us Europeans, indeed humanity in general -- on an earth that is one and a half, two or even three degrees warmer than it is today, in which extreme weather conditions are no longer perceived as extreme, but as normal. The heat is also hitting a country that has become sensitive. A country that has suddenly begun worrying about general weather conditions, about the probability of rain and about the medium-term and long-term forecasts. A country that is eagerly awaiting the harvest report for the first time in years because a surprising number of things are dependent on the 2018 harvest: the price of milk and the size of french fries, the quality of wine vintages and the availability of everyday produce: bread and beans, potatoes and peas.
Germans are learning new terms in these weeks: Emergency aid and emergency harvests, "blow-ups" (when the asphalt buckles), apple sunburns and low water situations, the term used by inland waterway operators to describe low water levels that endanger river navigation.
Suddenly, people are showing an interest in niche issues, from barbecue tips and sunblock factor levels to legal questions ("can you lie naked on the balcony?") -- all united in the feeling of experiencing something historic, the beginning of something new, unknown and perhaps even sinister.
In Westerrade, located 25 kilometers northwest of Lübeck, Dietrich Pritschau, 57, stands on his paddock staring at withered sugar beet leaves lying on the ground. For at least six generations, the family has made its living through farming. He runs the business together with his wife Cathrin, his brother Klaus and his son Tyll. "I've never seen anything like this before," says Pritschau. "It all looks so sad the way it is lying there."
Pritschau holds a degree in agricultural engineering. He cultivates more than 1,300 hectares with the help of 14 employees and 2 trainees. He farms 75 hectares near Westerrade, and the rest of his property is located in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
These days, his staff are harvesting the last fields about three weeks earlier than usual. The corn stands in the sun with bright, rolled up leaves, they have the pale color of cacti, not the rich, northern German green. On some fields, Pritschau has already treated the stubble, a kind of weed control with tractor and disc harrow. While working, the tractors drew a cloud of dust behind them.
Pritschau grows nine fruits, five of which he has already harvested. In the barley sector, this year's crop failed by 28 percent compared to the average of the past five years. The figure was 26 percent for rapeseed, 45 percent for rye and 47 percent for wheat.
For him, this dream of a summer has turned into a nightmare. "It's the weakest harvest of my life", says Pritschau, who has been in business for 31 years.
Last year was already a disappointing year for grain farmers in northern Germany. After months of rain, the water in many fields was still so high that many farmers were unable to get their planting done before the frost arrived. But without cold stimulus, winter wheat doesn't bear any fruit. This is why summer wheat -- a variety that yields one-fifth less than its cold-dependent twin -- only got planted in many fields in February.
The German Farmers' Association (DBV) is forecasting harvests of 6 tons per hectare of winter wheat due to the drought, or 20 percent lower than 2017 yields. That's the bad news. The good news for farmers is that prices have also risen 20 percent in the past four weeks alone.
But questions still persist. Is what we are experiencing this summer really evidence of climate change, every sunburn and every hot and sweaty night? Is this summer the final, irrefutable proof that the planet is heating up?
This much is clear: The summer's relentless sunshine matches climate observations of the last 138 years and predictions for upcoming decades with astonishing precision. The planet's average temperature is set to climb by two degrees or more. As a result, there will likely be more droughts, heat waves and heavy rainfall - extreme weather that used to be rare. For the time being, the dry summer of 2003 and the blazing hot summer of 2015 remain unsurpassed in Germany since records began. But if the planet heats up by two degrees, they could become the norm in our latitudes.
Yet it does not mean that all of Germany and indeed the rest of the world will become uniformly hotter and drier. Change will vary from region to region and season to season. Nor does it mean that next summer will necessarily be as hot and dry as this one.
The weather is unpredictable. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows. It can be windy. It can be calm. The climate, however, describes the average of these erratic conditions over a long period of time.
In short, this standout summer fits neatly into the 21st century's long-term climate trend. But it is dangerous to read too much into one-off weather occurrences. A single cold, wet summer does not disprove the long-term global warming trend. These exceptions are subsumed into the statistical average.
For this reason, one must be careful not to rush to conclusions and to assume that the current drought is the inevitable consequence of climate change.
'Fewer Extremely Cold Winters'
Nevertheless, the endless summer of 2018 provides a glimpse of what could be in store for the planet, and what life in 50 or 70 years might look like. By 2100, it will perhaps have become perfectly normal. The global temperature will have risen by at least two degrees, and most likely even more.
That, at least, is beyond doubt. Weather records began in Germany in 1881, and already show a rise in average temperature of 1.4 degrees Celsius - not, however, across the entire year but mainly in winter and spring. The temperature exceeds 30 degrees more often and falls below zero less often.
"There will be fewer extremely cold winters in the future,", says Gerhard Lux of the German Meteorological Service (DWD). "But this doesn't mean that winter will be more pleasant. There will be increased rainfall, so less snow and more rain." And that's bad news for winter sports regions, and also for our streets and roads, especially in mountainous areas. Melting permafrost will result in more frequent rockslides.
One positive effect is a reduced likelihood that rivers such as the Rhine will overflow as a result of spring snowmelt. Floods in Cologne, for example, will become less common.
"Spring will arrive earlier than we are used to, as happened this year," explains Lux. "The wine harvest will be earlier and the grape pickers will be wearing t-shirts rather than anoraks."
Lux is concerned less by the heat this summer than the drought, caused by the prolonged high temperatures in Scandinavia. A persistent weather system, such as the one currently keeping temperatures locked above the average, could become more common. It could also have the opposite effect, as evidenced by the heavy rain of summer 2017, which saw sewer systems in northern Germany overflow and cellars flooded.
Persistent weather fronts are made more likely by the fact that it is warming up in the high latitudes more than it is in the lower latitudes. Temperature differences between the Equator and Poland are narrowing. This results in the fast-flowing air currents circulating in the atmosphere, known as jet streams, meandering and causing atmospheric "blocking." In other words, the engine in the atmosphere that ensures constantly changing weather conditions could start to sputter out and slow down.
"When a weather system has become anchored, then there could be rain occurring on one trough axis and persistent drought a thousand kilometers away on the other side," says Lux. "One region will get too much rain and another too little. It's bad news for both."
Lux is aware that many effects of climate change might seem surprising to laypersons. Summers will tend to be hotter but there will also be a slight increase in aggregate rainfall, due to winters becoming damper.
A study conducted by the Climate Service Center Germany in Hamburg suggests that arid summers like the one currently gripping Germany may become more common by the end of the 21st century. The northeast, the southwest, the south of the country and the Alps in particular look set to see dramatically less rain in the summer months.
Germany To Be Spared Worst
Germany, situated relatively far north, will in fact be spared the worst. Mediterranean countries such as Spain are expected to see as much as a three-fold increase in their dry seasons, which would then last for more than five months of the year. Parts of Spain, Italy and Greece would then transform into deserts.
Based as they are on extremely broad-based data, these regional forecasts are not 100 percent reliable. London or Paris, Amsterdam or Aachen? Climate modeling isn't an exact science. Precise coordinates don't tend to be factored in.
Which climate model is the right one? Most scientists use as much forecasting as possible, gradually figuring out the various models' respective strengths and weaknesses. The range of climate predictions is therefore wide, but by no means random. Despite the variety of climate models, there is a consensus -- and the summer of 2018 fits into the picture perfectly.
Germany would in fact be able to cope with an increased frequency of dry periods, although this does not prevent associations, lobbyists and parliamentarians from championing their own causes.
For example, the aridity has just been quantified. Joachim Rukwied, president of the German Farmers' Association, has asked for 1 billion euros in special aid to compensate for drought damage. It would go to any farms whose harvests are down by at least 30 percent compared to their recent averages, due to the drought and heatwave.
One-billion euros. That's more or less the amount the government has pledged to spend on its emergency program to boost old-age care over the next four years. But then, the farmers' association has always had the ear of the conservative Christian Democrats, the government's senior coalition partner, and specifically that of its parliamentary group.
Volker Kauder, the conservatives' parliamentary group leader, took a clear stance on the issue, proclaiming "we should not be stingy." A was a remarkable response, not least given that Julia Klöckner, a member of the Christian Democrats and agriculture minister, had only just sought to distance herself from the farmer lobby's demands. Before paying out 1 billion euros, she said, it was worth waiting for the ministry's own harvest report, due in late August. It now seems doubtful that she will succeed in fighting her corner even within her own party.
Friedhelm Taube, an agricultural scientist based in Kiel and a member of the Agriculture Ministry's scientific advisory board, is among those who believe the farmers are not yet dealing with an emergency, despite the association's protestations to the contrary. The fruit harvest was disastrous last year, he points out, but by winter, the farmers' complaints had completely subsided. Substantial price hikes had compensated for their modest yields.
From land leasing costs, Taube can tell that value creation has flourished in agriculture in the last decade. They rose by more than 50 percent in some regions, and farmers could still afford them. For Germany as a whole, the added value of farmland based on purchase price development was around 100 billion euros. "Anyone who gets into existential difficulties after one bad year has been inefficient," he says.
Werner Schwarz, president of the farmers' association in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, takes a different view. Sure, dairy farmers have gotten back on their feet in the last 18 months, after a long period of struggle, "but not enough to create reserves." The shortage of animal feed due to parched fields means more and more farmers are having to slaughter their herds. In July, 20 percent more animals were slaughtered than usual.
Lobbyist Schwarz also cautions against a scattergun approach. He himself is a pig farmer, his business is doing fine. But a crop farmer doesn't have a pigsty or an apple orchard to make up for losses. Some of his colleagues are seeing a 70 percent drop in their harvests. Without aid, they could find themselves facing bankruptcy.
But Germany would need the EU to sign off on any aid package. The first condition would be that the emergency was a nationwide one. Drought is rarely a nationwide problem. Even in the exceptionally dry summer of 2003, federal and state governments "only" paid out 72 million euros in aid to farms struggling to survive.
The Green Party, meanwhile, has voiced deep-seated criticism of an aid package. With every instance of drought and flooding, the party sees itself vindicated in its conviction that a climate catastrophe is just around the corner. And party leader Annalena Baerbock doesn't buy Klöckner's reservations. "If she's serious, then she wouldn't be blocking agricultural reform, which is urgently needed, at the European level," she says. The European Commission, she points out, only recently proposed that the criteria for agricultural subsidies should be sustainable farming practices rather than farm size. Baerbock thinks it is regrettable that Klöckner rejects this approach.
Good News for Vintners
Unfortunately, the chorus of complaints has somewhat drowned out the fact that not all farmers have been equally hard hit by the dry weather. Asparagus and strawberry farmers, for example, had a good year. And wine-growers could be looking at record harvests.
The south-facing Knipser Himmelsrech Dirmsteiner Mandelpfad vineyard is ideally located to soak up the sun. Wearing shorts, Stephan Knipser, 42, is standing among rows of vines. Here on the edge of the Rhine Valley he grows cabernet sauvignon, a grape that used to be associated mainly with the Bordeaux region.
But Knipser has even had to shield the cabernet sauvignon against excessive heat. The vintner has thinned out the foliage in the middle and is giving the leaves at the top longer to grow. "The grape canopy gets enough air," says Knipser, "but we let the foliage at the top grow so it provides the grapes with shade." Excessive heat can break down acid in the grape, so the wine ends up less fresh and long-lasting.
And if there is not enough water, the leaves' stomata will close and the grapes would stop growing. This can easily happen with young vines on sandy soil. Old vines have much deeper roots, and are therefore far less likely to dry up in hot weather.
"So far we have been very lucky with the weather," says Stephan Knipser, notwithstanding a hailstorm in spring. "Plentiful sunshine means riper grapes and more sugar and therefore more alcohol."
Thirty years ago, Knipser's father was one of the first to start growing sun-worshiping grapes. He came in for a lot of ridicule at the time. These days, he's seen as something of a visionary. "With climate change, these grape varieties are now flourishing here," he says. Knipser even grows Yellow Orleans, believed to have been the favorite tipple of Charlemagne. It long ago disappeared from German vineyards because it rarely ripened in time. But in recent years grapes are ripening earlier in Germany, which according to Knipser, is indicative of climate change.
Stephan Knipser, for one, is a happy man. But what does the scorching hot summer of 2018 mean for everyone else? What's in store for Germany in the next few weeks?
The heat will start to subside, mainly because the days are getting shorter and the nights longer. So the sun has less time to heat up the atmosphere. According to the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, based in Reading, England, the drought could continue, and not just for one or two weeks but for the whole of August and possibly even into September.
'A Quiet Revolution'
Medium-range forecasts are not necessarily completely accurate, of course. How could they be? "It's an experimental product," says meteorologist Kachelmann. "But the best one in the world and very alarming."
So, it will be less hot, but the drought will remain? That's not what farmers, doctors, energy utility providers and fire services want to hear.
But there is a silver lining. Weather and climate research has advanced in leaps and bounds in recent decades. News of extreme heat claiming lives or heavy rainfall causing flooding tends to overshadow the quiet, dogged advances being made in weather modeling, day in, day out, by trial and error. These advances go largely unnoticed. All we ever do is moan whenever a storm strikes an hour later than predicted. Disasters shout, whereas progress whispers.
"We are witnessing a quiet revolution in weather and climate prediction," says Peter Bauer, deputy director of the EZMW's research department. "We've been seeing steady progress for decades. Every 10 years we've been able to add a day to the weather forecast."
These are busy times at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading. Bauer sometimes ties together over 50 variations of a weather model into one. There is a constant stream of new datasets. The efficient linking of forecasts in the southern and northern hemispheres with the help of satellite data that allow for a systematic overview of the entire planet massively boosted accuracy. Weather prediction is now so reliable that it can help the planet adapt to climate change.
Many ways it can adapt are simple and already tried and tested. Protective grids and windows against hailstorms, the greening of rooftops - as recommended by the Federal Environment Agency. Urban planners must find ways of guarding against flooding in the event of heavy rain. White roof surfaces reflect sunlight and deflect heat. Parks provide shade when the sun shines and absorb moisture like a sponge when it rains.
Farmers also need to adjust. Mixed farming is less vulnerable to extreme weather. Genetically modified crops that can withstand hot, dry weather must also become more acceptable to consumers.
For many people, the summer of 2018 will be one to remember. It's been intense -- a pleasure for some, a nightmare for others. But first and foremost, it has been a wake-up call. We need to start preparing ourselves for warmer times to come, and the advantages and disadvantages they will bring.
By Melanie Amann, Annette Bruhns, Anna Clauß, Hauke Goos, Dietmar Hipp, Ann-Katrin Müller, Martin U. Müller, Timofey Neshitov, Christopher Piltz, Hilmar Schmundt, Olaf Stampf and Steffen Winter