The Never-Ending Summer Is Germany's Heat Wave a Preview of the Future?


Part 2: Relentless Summer

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.

Graphic: Temperature Deviations in July 2018

Graphic: Temperature Deviations in July 2018

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.

Farmers Struggling

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.

Graphic: Precipitation in Germany

Graphic: Precipitation in Germany

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


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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aaallison 08/07/2018
1. Endlich!
An article which suggests, albeit indirectly, both that the "Relentless Summer" is not an aberration and that we need to learn to live with climate change (as we have been doing throughout history). It might have been improved by pointing out that despite the huge increase in atmospheric CO2 since 1977, the temperature records set in that year have yet to be broken.
stm110 08/09/2018
2. Did Germany increase greenhouse gasses emission over the last 10 years
Yes, there is a link (weak, because Germany is only one of the many countries damaging the climate) between closure of nuclear power plants and increasing global temperatures. I consider myself a "greenie" but I am afraid Green parties worldwide have done a tremendous harm to the global climate. They have done much more than the average damage in Germany.
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