Bremerhaven's Climate House: Around the World in a Kilometer

By Jan-Philipp Hein

Deserts, ice sheets, oppressive humidity: A new museum in Bremerhaven has turned the world's climate zones into an experience. SPIEGEL ONLINE took a kilometer-long trip around the world at the Klimahaus (Climate House), which opens to the public on Saturday.

As far as earth's lines of longitude go, 8 degrees east isn't particularly spectacular. It doesn't go through any metropolises, it doesn't have a time element like the international dateline and it isn't nearly as significant as the prime meridian, which divides the planet into eastern and western hemispheres.

Still, 8 degrees east longitude has something that sets it apart from the rest of its 359 peers. Its span around the globe has been condensed to just under 5,000 square meters in Bremerhaven, Germany. At the city's new Klimahaus (Climate House), which is located on a street named At 8 Degrees Longitude and will open its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday, visitors can travel the virtual line of longitude in a single day and experience a wide variety of climate zones along the way.

Summer has been slow to reach the northern German port city, but there's plenty of heat in the Klimahaus's 200-square meter simulated Nigerian semi-desert, complete with a lonely acacia tree. The room is 35 degrees Celsius and dust dry. Bremerhaven's Weser River is just a few meters from the building but it feels like it could be a thousand miles away.

The desert scenery is just one stop of the "Trip" exhibit that comprises the core of the Klimahaus. The museum also houses a number of other exhibits, including "Elements," where visitors can carry out their own climate experiments. Using fire, earth, water and air as ingredients, they can simulate storms or volcanic eruptions. And in "Opportunities" the theme is individual CO2 output and steps people can take to help save the environment.

The organizers of the exhibit, Bremen-based Petri & Tiemann, believe that visitors will spend four to five hours at Klimahaus -- but it could likely be longer than that. That amount of time could be spent exploring the miniature round-the-world trip alone. The journey begins in Bremerhaven, where the line of 8 degrees longitude runs directly through the Klimahaus. In the exhibit, visitors leave the 115,000-person city on train tracks.

A Drop of Water Every 12 Minutes

The next stop is a Swiss mountain farm, which is threatened by melting glaciers. The permafrost had always held the boulders together -- but now there is a danger of falling rocks. From Switzerland, the trail leads through a Sardinian meadow to the Nigerian desert. In the 200 square meter room, a drop of water falls onto the acacia tree every 12 minutes, corresponding to that climate's actual amount of precipitation. Just a few minutes further, though, a tropical climate awaits. The humidity in the Cameroon jungle is 80 percent, the temperature 30 degrees Celsius.

But a temperature drop of 48 degrees Celsius is just a few meters' walk away for Klimahaus' world travelers -- which in reality would represent around 10,000 kilometers. Even Antarctica's ice sheets are an attraction at Klimahaus, whose exhibition design was developed by the Hamburg-based agency Kunstraum GfK.

Before visitors can catch a cold, though, they move on to Samoa. The waters of the Pacific are still. But the church on the island has fallen into disrepair -- despite the fact that 98 percent of the population are Christians -- because the villagers have fled from the rising sea-level.

The trip then moves on to Alaska. Space is limited at the Klimahaus, but it still captures the feeling of endlessness in the tundra. Beyond the Alaskan horizon lies Germany's small North Sea island of Langeness, the last stop before returning to Bremerhaven. The theme at this station is again the rising sea. Visitors stand on a hill while a storm surge is simulated around them. The water rises. Whoever wants to avoid getting wet feet has to move closer to his or her fellow travelers.

Creating A Downpour

The Klimahaus is a spectacle. The exhibits, brought to life using a combination of stagecraft and theater backdrops, show how people in different places are exposed to the happenings of nature. At every station, there are also so-called immersion spaces. On Sardinia, that means an old Fiat 500. The compact car is exposed to the whims of visitors who can simulate weather conditions on a computer. A high-pressure system here, a low one there, and suddenly there's a downpour over the automobile.

At every stop on the journey through the climate zones, the creator's penchant for detail is apparent to visitors. After all, this trip was not developed on a drawing board. Instead, Petri & Tiemann dispatched Bremen-based architect Axel Werner to visit sites along the actual line of 8 degrees longitude between 2004 and 2006. "He's very good at approaching people," says Klimahaus spokesman Wolfgang Heumer -- and there are traces of humanity everywhere in the Klimahaus.

On his discovery trip, Werner brought Israeli-American documentary filmmaker B. Z. Goldberg along with him, who produced 81 film scenes as part of the collaboration. The architect talked to people in different places, Goldberg captured the images and, in Bremerhaven, they form a central part of the exhibition.

Everyone is talking about the climate and how it is changing. And at Bremerhaven's newest museum, the focus is on the experience and the mechanisms of nature.

The idea for the Klimahaus originated after city officials in Bremerhaven commissioned Petri & Tiemann to develop a tourist attraction -- also stipulating that there had to be a strong local connection. At the time, there wasn't much public debate about climate change. The company, which considers itself a specialist at "theme-based knowledge worlds," then proposed the idea for the Klimahaus: "Whether hot or cold, wet or dry, stormy or still, one can experience the weather from nearly every climate zone here," says Arne Dunker, director of the company. In 2001, they developed a plan for the museum and construction began in 2006.

The 18,800 square meter project cost the state of Bremen, of which Bremerhaven is part, and the city a total of €70 million. Petri & Tiemann are taking over control of operations and the accompanying entrepreneurial risk. They anticipate 600,000 visitors a year. On peak days, up to 5,000 travelers are expected to undertake the kilometer-long journey around the earth.

Petri & Tiemann co-owner Carlo Petri says: "The climate is one of those topics that affects people the most." But many don't have the fundamental knowledge and scientific understanding of how things fit together. "We want to create a better sense of orientation with the Klimahaus and its easy-to-understand, interestingly presented and scientifically-grounded offerings," Petri said.

So that it also stays that way in the future, the science center is to be permanently updated to reflect the latest scientific findings. To do so, it is partnering with some of the most prestigious addresses for climate research in Germany, including the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, the German Weather Service and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, whose headquarters is just a stone's throw away from the new climate temple.

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