Photo Gallery: How Germany's Climate Is Changing

Foto: A9999 Hartmut Dell-Missier/ dpa

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.
Von 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.

Record Temperatures

In addition, with the latest research predicting a rise of up to 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) by 2100 due to the rapidly increasing polar ice melt, Schleswig-Holstein's Environment Ministry plans to double the width at the top of all its North Sea coastal dikes to five meters (16 feet), creating a "reserve" in case further heightening is necessary in the future.

Climate change "has arrived in the North and Baltic Seas," in the words of the German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency. It wasn't just seaside swimmers who noticed the change this summer, as they enjoyed the 22nd year in a row of record water temperatures. Even at a depth of 40 meters (130 feet), the water is now 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) on average, two degrees Celsius more than last century's average.

"The North Sea is becoming the Mediterranean," the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper declared, summing up the trend. What may be good news for swimmers, spells disaster for fisheries. Just as ocean warming brought plagues of jellyfish to the countries abutting the Mediterranean and caused algae to overwhelm the Caribbean's colorful coral reefs, changes are underway in the North Sea.

Heat-Sensitive Fish at Risk

The German Bight, which last froze 46 years ago, is now home to flitting swarms of Mediterranean species such as sardines and anchovies. Exotic species like the striped red mullet or the sea bass, a fish prized along France's Côte d'Azur as the "loup de mer" ("wolf of the sea"), have established themselves as well. And a Dutch fisherman named Anton Dekker has made it his specialty to take his cutter "SL-9-Johanna" squid fishing in the warm southwestern currents.

At the same time, however, fish sensitive to warmth such as the cod and pollack, which are far more important economically, have migrated to cooler waters further away. Around half of all native fish species have left since 1980, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, who track their migrations.

Fishery researcher Christopher Zimmermann in the northeastern German city of Rostock reports that last year's generation of herring was "the weakest in almost 30 years" -- possibly also a consequence of ocean warming. Zimmermann considers the cause of the phenomenon to be that due to climate change, the young herrings' food resources -- plankton consisting of tiny crabs and algae -- are no longer present in the southern part of the North Sea "in the right place at the right time."

Inland Ships Stranded in Summer

Further inland, fish farmers -- as well as swimmers in lakes and ponds -- are also seeing the effects of climate change. Berlin's Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries warns of an "invasion of tropical species," including exotic blue algae. More and more lakes usually open for public swimming have had to be closed due to the presence of toxic algae, and the water level in many fish ponds is down after a dry summer.

The fish farming industry especially in Germany's drier eastern regions has felt the consequences this year, including oxygen deficient water, slow-growing fish, and even the necessity to carry out emergency harvesting of stock. "We fish farmers are the hardest hit by climate change," says Christoph Junghanns from the town of Forst on the German-Polish border.

And operators of many inland shipping lines could say the same. According to the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration, low water levels this summer meant that "profitable freight shipping was no longer possible" on the Oder River, which forms Germany's border with Poland. The same was true for the Elbe River, which traverses Germany from the Czech border to the North Sea. "Low water phases are beginning earlier in the season and lasting longer," Potsdam based climate researcher Frank Wechsung explains. "We expect to see the last of summertime shipping by 2050."

Yet More Evidence of Global Warming

Farmers and foresters are increasingly running up against problems as well, and they tend to notice earlier than city dwellers do that nature is no longer playing by its own rules. Swifts are now raising a second brood of young in the space of one summer, while many cranes and storks stay in northern Germany all winter instead of continuing on to southern Spain or Africa. Mediterranean birds like the brightly colored bee-eater or the short-toed eagle have also been spotted north of the Alps.

Spring now arrives on average five days earlier than it did 20 years ago, while climate zones have shifted north by up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) in the same time period. These developments prompted one vintner to plant Mediterranean grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon on his land in the Kaiserstuhl wine-producing region of southern Germany, and a German-Turkish couple recently began planting a 4,000-square-meter (43,000-square-foot) olive grove on a slope above the German stretch of the Moselle River.

But it's not just foreign fruits that are gaining a foothold in Germany -- southern plant pests are spreading north as well. A notorious strain of black fruit rot has made it as far as Altes Land, a fruit growing region near Hamburg. "The apples are rotting on the trees," reports Roland Weber, a biologist and fruit growing expert from the town of Jork in Altes Land.

Exotic Species For Germany?

According to UBA, many crops traditionally cultivated in Germany, such as potatoes, rye, and oats, will largely disappear if -- as seems "very likely" -- the country sees temperatures rise a further 2 to 3 degree Celsius (3.5 to 7 degree Fahrenheit) by 2100 and summertime precipitation and soil fertility drop by 30 percent. The agency also suggests that soybean cultivation could become a possibility in southern Germany.

To prepare the country's agricultural sector for the "longer summer dry spells" now expected, the Julius Kühn Institute in Braunschweig, which researches cultivated plants, is testing drought resistant exotic species such as Sudan grass and sorghum for their suitability as energy crops.

The country's foresters are making similarly large-scale adjustments. Researchers in Eberswalde, near Berlin, are using Germany's first dry lab to test the root system of the common beech for its reaction to periods of drought. The UBA is advocating a massive "forest conversion" and it seems the change is unavoidable -- the timber industry's beloved monoculture spruce stands will have to give way to stable mixed forests capable of withstanding dry summers as well as the devastating winter storms that have been felling shallow-rooted spruces by the thousands since the early 1990s.

Pollen Allergies and Forest Fires

On top of all that, climate change also accelerates forest fire development. Even if Germany's average temperature rises by just 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) -- providing the country with "Tuscan conditions" -- climate researcher Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe in Potsdam expects that "the danger of forest fires will rise by almost a third by 2050" in the coniferous forests around Berlin.

It's long been clear that the greenhouse effect inflicts both direct and indirect damage on humans -- and not only in the Third World, where the aid organization Oxfam estimates by 2015 around 375 million people will suffer consequences such as epidemics, lack of drinking water and floods.

Extended growing seasons and the arrival of nonnative plants have changed the pollen calendar to the detriment of those with allergies. Ragweed, the dreaded warmth-loving plant with "enormous allergenic potential," is spreading "explosively" throughout Germany, according to Tobias Welte, a professor of medicine in Hanover.

Aggressive Ticks on the Move

In addition, the country is threatened by "climatically dependent stress situations," in the words of the UBA, incidents along the lines of the heat wave that claimed approximately 40,000 victims throughout Western Europe -- 7,000 of them in Germany alone -- in summer 2003. The German government calculates that in Freiburg, a southern German city already known for its comparatively mild climate, the number of days with temperatures reaching more than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) will nearly double and the number of "tropical nights" with temperatures over 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) will almost triple by 2100.

Climate researchers warn that such heat levels increase the risk of infections, for example through cholera present in water or salmonella in food. Viruses thrive on warmth, as do their carriers, known to scientists as vectors. That includes not just ticks, but a range of animals such as mice, mites, and mosquitoes.

Epidemiologists were alarmed to discover that the Asian tiger mosquito, among others, had already reached Germany on its northward march. The insect was spotted for the first time along the Upper Rhine River. Two years ago, the same species infected 214 people in northern Italy with the Chikungunya virus, a tropical fever whose symptoms include severe joint pain. The UBA also warns that there is always "a danger of a recurrence of malaria infections."

Disease Risk

Two other dangerous relatives of the sheep tick have made it to Germany as well. The new arrivals are a Mediterranean variety of Hyalomma tick, which has red and yellow banded legs and can transmit a serious hemorrhagic fever, and the marsh tick, with its speckled pattern, which has now reached Lübeck in far northern Germany after years of migration from Italy and Austria.

This second bloodsucker measures up to two centimeters (0.8 inches) when fully fed, three times the size of the sheep tick. It carries canine babesiosis, a disease that can be fatal under some circumstances and infects dogs, among other animals. The tick can also pose a danger to humans as a carrier of typhus and other diseases.

This new arrival from the south differs from the more lethargic sheep tick in its pronouncedly aggressive behavior. The Robert-Koch-Institut, Germany's federal institute for disease control and prevention, cites foresters in the state of Brandenburg who observed the marsh tick "actively moving toward them within a radius of one meter (3.3 feet) in order to bite."

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