Feeling the Heat Climate Change Has Become a Reality for Germany

For Germans gobal warming is no longer just about stranded polar bears and dying coral reefs. These days, millions of people are feeling the heat of climate change at home. The effects are becoming more drastic and rapid.


By Jochen Bölsche

A German Armed Forces special unit wearing snowy white protective suits complete with hoods and respiratory masks hacks its way through the Bavarian undergrowth. The ghostly figures are here to carry out a reconnaissance mission. Their enemy has eight legs and a dangerous weapon.

The men are from the Armed Forces Institute of Microbiology in Munich. Originally, the organization was founded to defend against exotic epidemics and biological terrorist attacks, but its members also regularly head out to hunt for domestic ticks. The bloodsucking parasites, carriers of dangerous illnesses such as tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) and Lyme disease, pose a danger to the suited soldiers. Meanwhile, the rest of the population are at risk, too. Around 327,000 Germans contract Lyme disease from tick saliva each year. According to Germany's Federal Environment Agency (UBA), treatment for the disease "is often protracted and doesn't necessarily have good prospects of success."

And the menace is growing. Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Gerhard Dobler said his unit collected 350 ticks in the space of two hours this year, twice as many as they found at the same time last year. Their analysis also showed that a disproportionate number of the bloodthirsty arachnids are carrying viruses as compared to last year.

Climate Change Probably to Blame

Ixodes ricinus, commonly known as the castor-bean tick or sheep tick, is on the move, and not just in Bavaria. The danger of contracting TBE in Germany, which in the most extreme cases can cause fatal meningitis, was once limited to the south of the country and to regions below 800 meters (2,600 feet) in elevation. But, for a long time, the risk zone has been spreading. Now it includes places in the north as well as to elevations up to 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).

Tanja Gönner, environment minister for the southern German city of Stuttgart, warns that the risk of TBE infection from tick bites has risen tenfold in the last 10 years. The National Reference Laboratory for Tick-Borne Diseases in Jena reports there are "clear indications" that climate change is to blame for the increase. Global warming creates the warm, humid winters which help ticks flourish.

This upsurge in tick activity has been one of a string of dismal news reports within Germany in the weeks and months leading up to the climate conference in Copenhagen. The message is clear -- global warming affects not just polar bears and coral reefs, but us as well. Although the earth's average temperatures seem to have halted their climb over the last few years, scientists pin that development on other factors, such as fluctuating solar activity and altered deep water currents in the Pacific Ocean. Europe remains among the regions where temperatures are rising.

Flooding Afoot?

Never before have there been so many reports of shrinking waterways and North Sea dikes under threat, of vulnerable harvests and unfamiliar pests. The changes show the extent of the impact of Germany's average temperature increase of 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past century. The newsflow does not bode well for the further increase of 1.5 to 3.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) predicted to occur by 2100.

Impressive television images have contributed to the shift in public awareness of the problem. There was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for one, posing in front of Greenland's melting glaciers in a bright red anorak back in 2008. And the cabinet of the Maldives, a small island nation in danger of disappearing entirely beneath rising sea levels, created a spectacular scene when its government donned diving suits and held an underwater cabinet session this October, a hard-hitting appeal to reduce global emissions.

For most Germans, however, it's more likely to be the domestic risks that hit home. The country's own North Sea coast is at greater risk of flooding due to the expansion of warm water masses, the accelerated melting of the polar ice caps, and more frequent storms from the northwest, which push sea water ever further into the funnel-shaped German Bight.

'Like a German Maldives'

Three years ago, politicians refused requests to increase the height of all coastal dikes, basing their decision on the need to economize and the "uncertain data basis," in the words of the Coastal Research Station in the state of Lower Saxony. The opposition center-left Social Democratic Party mocked the decision at the time, saying that the state's center-right coalition of the Christian Democratic Union and Free Democratic Party apparently believed climate change took place "only in China and India."

Since then, however, the view has spread that the North Sea coast especially, with its low-lying coastal islands, represents "something like a German Maldives," in the words of Zeit Wissen, a German science magazine. The population of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's northernmost state, includes 350,000 lowland inhabitants who will be threatened in the long term by rising sea levels. The state sees itself facing the choice of "raising the dikes or, in extreme cases, letting one or another of the lowlands behind the dikes fill with water," says climate researcher Hans von Storch from the small northern city of Geesthacht.

Schleswig-Holstein, which borders on water to both the east and the west, has now resolved to add 50 centimeters (20 inches) to its North Sea dikes and 30 centimeters (12 inches) to those on its Baltic Sea coast as a climate change precaution.


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