Volker Mommsen is the mayor of one of the smallest communities in Germany. The island of Gröde, a flat green disk in the middle of the Wadden Sea, lies four kilometers (2.5 miles) off the coast of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. There are only two small raised mounds on the island, artificial dwelling hills known as terps, each of them four meters above sea level. Five houses exist on the two terps. The island is inhabited by 11 people and, in the summer, 70 cows and 60 sheep.
Mommsen, with his gray beard, weathered face, bright-colored knit socks and worn brown shoes, has lived on the island for 47 years. His daughter moved to the mainland with his two grandchildren recently, but Mommsen doesn't want to leave Gröde.
The only problem is that the North Sea sloshes across the island several times a year now. When that happens, only the terps are above sea level. It doesn't bother him, says Mommsen. When he moved to Gröde with his parents in 1964, the structures had just been rebuilt after a major storm surge. "The state government offered low-interest loans so that the terps would remain inhabited," he says.
But now some in the state government in Kiel are asking themselves whether it's still a good idea for people to be living out on the island. If climatologists' predictions are correct, the earth's atmosphere will continue to heat up, and sea levels will rise significantly within a few decades. When that happens the sea will inundate Gröde and the other islands known as the Halligen.
Mommsen can identify with people like the king of Tonga and the president of the Maldives. Climate change also threatens the existence of their seats of government. But how can the North Sea be kept at bay? With new dikes and higher terps? It would cost many millions of euros and would fundamentally change the face of the islands.
Now, architects and engineers are being called in to help solve the problem. The state has just announced a contest for new ideas. "Perhaps," says Mommsen, "we'll need houses here like the ones in Holland, which float like boats during floods."
Making Changes from Flensburg to the Alps
Mommsen and the officials charged with protecting the coast aren't the only ones being forced to find ways to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will affect Germany from Flensburg in the north the Alps in the south.
Climatologists are certain that winters will get wetter and summers will be drier. Average annual temperatures could rise by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. If that happens, summers will be unbearably hot in urban areas, the fields will be dry, and Germany will face new hazards from thunderstorms, severe weather, storm surges and flooding.
So far, municipal governments have taken steps to protect the environment, such as insulating schools, replacing incandescent light bulbs with new energy-saving bulbs and buying hybrid vehicles as official cars. But all of these efforts will hardly stop the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As a result, some are beginning to focus more heavily on another aspect of climate change: Protecting society from its unavoidable effects.
But there are still no uniform standards, binding regulations or clear plans for how to prepare the country for climate change, partly because of the lack of funding and an appreciation for the problem on the part of politicians, urban planners, preservationists and citizens.
A Federal Plan Short on Details
At least the federal government has begun to react. Last week it approved a long-awaited "Adaptation Action Plan." In addition to its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, society must adapt to the consequences of climate change, says German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
But the 93-page document contains almost no information about steps the federal government intends to take. Many things will have to be implemented "at the local or regional level," according to the document, which was not drafted by Röttgen's climate experts but rather by the division of hydraulic engineers within the Environment Ministry. It makes recommendations such as: "In the spirit of self-preparedness, the primary responsibility for adapting to climate change ultimately lies with citizens and businesses."
Even the Environment Ministry, which Röttgen envisions serving as a "roadmap and point of contact" for making necessary changes in Germany, doesn't know what happens locally. So far, a federal database lists only 100 projects, many of which haven't even begun yet.
The Germans are approaching the problem in typically German fashion: thoroughly and federally. Most states, as well as many counties and municipalities, have already drafted their own strategies, set up commissions and task forces, and ordered expert opinions and studies.
Coordinating at the State Level
But what exactly does the term "high water" mean? What is a flood? And at what point does a threat begin? Even questions like these are answered differently in the capitals of Germany's 16 states. If a storm surge from the North Sea were to flow into the mouth of the Elbe River, it would affect three states, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and the city-state of Hamburg.
But each of those states uses a different method to draw conclusions about potential hazards based on measured water levels. Statisticians in state governments have been unable to solve the problem for years -- setting a poor precedent for those charged with preparing for even greater flooding.
In the middle Elbe region, a dispute involving levies even ended up in court. After the 2002 Elbe River floods, a veritable race to build the highest levies began along the river. The government in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania feared that the levies in the neighboring state of Brandenburg were so high that their own levies would be inundated in a flood. The two states have since worked out a complicated compromise.
There is also no lack of research projects that relate to climate change, with names like Klimzug, Klimafit, Klimpass, Regklam, Dynaklim, Kliff, KlimAix, JenKAS, Klima Exwost and KlimaMoro.
The German government is spending more than €80 million ($113 million) on the Klimzug project alone. As part of the effort, scientists in the northern city of Lübeck are studying the extent to which fungi are likely to affect houses with thatched roofs in the future.
In Brandenburg, scientists are looking into whether the species of trees that typically line the region's boulevards -- sycamore, ash and chestnut -- might be replaced with orange milk trees or Japanese magnolias in the future. At Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria experts are measuring the potential effects of visitors perspiring more heavily as a result of higher temperatures.
The results could soon fill a small library. But what is missing is a set of clear priorities. Even the climate experts at government ministries say there are many papers, but there is little coordination.
Instituting 'No Regret' Measures
In light of this deficit, the efforts of the Kassel Climate Adaptation Academy to train municipal "adaptation officers" seem to make sense. The academy envisions every town or city employing such an officer in the future.
Unfortunately, says staffer Ulrike Steffens, the courses are not yet available. The project is making little headway because the academy hasn't received the necessary specifications from the state of Hesse, where Kassel is located. Besides, Steffens says, very few municipalities would voluntarily pay for such climate bureaucrats.
"The municipalities are certainly interested in getting advice," says Cornelia Rösler, director of the environmental division of the German Institute for Urban Affairs. But, she adds, the funding isn't there for many programs.
"What city council member would spend money today to solve a problem that might not happen until a few decades from now?" Rösler says. Climate adaptation projects, she says, have to be "no regret" measures, that is, measures that would still make sense if the predicted changes to the climate fail to materialize.
This explains why the enthusiasm over adaptation is greatest in places where there are already problems today. Wuppertal in western Germany is a case in point. The city's residents know what it's like when the rain doesn't seem to stop.
Tracking Wuppertal's Rain
Clouds coming westward from the Atlantic Ocean cross the Cologne basin and are particularly likely to then produce rain over the hilly region to the east of Cologne, where Wuppertal lies. Wuppertal receives annual precipitation of almost 1,200 liters per square meter (about 47 inches), almost twice as much as in Berlin. And because the city's two downtown areas are hemmed in by the deep Wupper River valley, heavy precipitation repeatedly leads to flooding from the surrounding steep hillsides.
It's now possible to sit at a computer at Wuppertal's city hall and watch a computer simulation of where the water typically flows. Bernard Arnold, a civil engineer, has set up a monitor to demonstrate his new program. It provides an aerial view of the city and, as the virtual flooding program progresses, the streets gradually turn blue. "Once the new technology is complete," says the 63-year-old, "we'll be able to simulate thunderstorms of varying severity at any location in the city."
Certain critical areas will be digitally surveyed soon, making it possible to depict the water flows three-dimensionally. "This allows us to see the effects of things like rising sidewalk levels, sinking park areas or using small walls to channel floodwater in areas that are less at risk," says Arnold.
The first tests are underway at the historic ruins of Lüntenbeck Castle, which has already been flooded several times. Instead of installing a costly diversion channel, a hiking path will be lowered so that water can flow down the path during heavy rains. In the future, says Arnold, rainfall will have to be channeled along streets, as is currently being done in Denmark, instead of through pipes and culverts.
The computer simulations also have another purpose: To prepare the population for the threat of flooding. Unfortunately, says Arnold, many people are unaware of the dangers. While conducting his research, he discovered a hospital and a church community center that are threatened with flooding during heavy rains. But the management of both facilities, says Arnold, refused to take the necessary precautionary steps.
"Maybe they'll react when they can see how everything would be inundated," Arnold says optimistically.
The city has no legal authority to force residents to take precautions. In fact, it would normally be prohibited from funding the modifications, which are seen as "voluntary services," that municipalities deep in debt shouldn't be able to afford. But this hasn't stopped Wuppertal from proceeding with the plan. The city's public utility, as the builder, is paying for the modifications through fees.
'Without Irrigation, You Can't Do Much'
If Wuppertal has too much rain, the Lüneburg Heath in northern Germany has the opposite problem. Ulrich Ostermann works in a former road maintenance depot on the outskirts of the town of Uelzen. He is the head of the "County Alliance of Water and Soil Associations" and a rainmaker of sorts for the region. Ostermann's job is to ensure that farmers get enough water for their fields.
"Without irrigation, you can't do much with our dry, sandy soil," says Ostermann, a civil engineer. But thanks to the water provided by irrigation, farmers can grow beets and potatoes, dubbed the "gold of the Heath." Residents in the Uelzen administrative district consume an average of seven million cubic meters of drinking water, while 27 million cubic meters are sprayed onto the fields. The region is the largest artificial sprinkling zone in Germany.
It is already foreseeable today that there will not be enough water for the region if summers become hotter and drier. Surrounded by maps and plans on a round table, Ostermann says the future of agriculture lies in massive irrigation systems like those used in the United States. "They use water much more effectively than conventional irrigation cannons," he says.
One drawback to the innovation, however, is that it needs a lot of space. The fields of the future will be 800 meters (2,624 feet) long and the size of 140 soccer fields. But this destroys the traditional cultivated landscape and leads to bureaucratic problems. Field paths have to be removed, pipes have to be installed and farmers have to swap sections of their land. Most of all, however, ecologically valuable rows of trees, bushes and hedges will disappear.
To arrive at pragmatic solutions quickly, Ostermann and the local chamber of agriculture established a "cultural landscape association" a few days ago. That association provides farmers with a forum to negotiate with conservationists and local politicians on how the restructuring of the landscape can serve all interests at the same time. "We don't know if it will work," says Ostermann. "There is no precedent for this sort of thing in Germany."
If altering the rural landscape is difficult, some of the conflicts in cities can become unsolvable. The city of Hamburg, for example, is in the midst of a €40 million project to enhance flood protection for its downtown area. Nevertheless, Hamburg has long lacked a strategy on how to prepare itself for the consequences of climate change. Mayor Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats (SPD), has other priorities, such as building 6,000 new residential units a year. This will require developing land that is currently unused and erecting more buildings. Climate experts propose doing the opposite, namely reducing the density of development and creating more green space.
Cooling Methods from the Middle Ages
For some cities, it has proven to be a bonanza when a downtown area has had to be completely rebuilt. The Neumarkt district near Dresden's rebuilt cathedral, the Church of Our Lady, is a case in point. The public works department installed long-distance heating and cooling networks in the newly developed district. In the summer, water cooled to 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) is pumped through the pipes, cooling apartments and public buildings. The concept was originally designed to make life more comfortable for residents and city employees, says Reinhard Niespor of the city's public works department. "But now we can easily market it as climate adaptation," he says.
The Bavarian city of Regensburg already has problems with rising temperatures today. Heat builds up in the narrow streets of the historic district on summer days, and nighttime brings hardly any relief.
"It's clear that the situation has to be improved," says Joachim Scheid, a geographer who has been hired to develop a plan for the city. But the historic preservationists are opposed to any changes to the protected UNESCO World Heritage site, and tourism officials are delighted with the city's newfound "Mediterranean flair" and a longer tourist season.
Scheid discovered that the city does have a unique advantage in that the buildings and infrastructure were constructed during the Medieval Warm Period, when ventilation shafts and streams were used to regulate temperatures. If these features could be exposed once again, adaptation would merely be a step into the past.