The great drought of 2018: Germany’s endless summer

Climate change is becoming increasingly apparent. In 2018, the whole world struggled with droughts, floods and other disasters. Germany also had to contend with systemic distortions, says Paul Hockenos.

Germany struggles with the negative effects of climate change (Public Domain)

Climate change’s new abnormal means reinventing just about everything. Two hotties: agriculture and cargo transport in a warmer world.

 2018 was not the first year that the effects of climate change made their presence felt on the continent; scientists have tracked and documented Europe’s gradually warmer summers and outbursts of extreme weather for two decades. But it was definitely the year that Europeans – and Germans above all – experienced it first hand so directly, with repercussions for lifestyle, the food chain, wildlife, and commerce. The upshot is just sinking in: climate change is no longer abstract – and we have to change with it.

The summer of 2018 may or may not have been the hottest on record (some meteorologists claim that July/August 2003 were hotter) but the year is definitely the driest since record-keeping began, particularly in Germany, with drought conditions lasting from April well into November. Rivers dried up, lakes shrank, asphalt roads heaved, forests burned, fish populations died from lack of oxygen in their water, elderly people collapsed, and exhausted livestock was slaughtered before it perished. Next year may not be as brutal, but these blistering summers will happen ever more frequently, say climate researchers.

I caught a glimpse of its destructive force when cycling in the Brandenburg countryside north of Berlin. Even in July, with the worst of the heat wave still to come, the crops languished: half of the sunflowers were torched brown, the others drooping over, heads craned desperately away from the sun. The corn’s growth was stunted, erosion was devouring the parched soil.

Thus far in 2018, Berlin and Brandenburg has experienced about a third of 2017’s rainfall per square meter (300 vs. 854 liter), which will probably be less than 1911’s all-time low of 382 liters. In Lower Saxony, Baden Württemberg, Saxony, and parts of Bavaria, it was even grimmer: large swathes of territory fell into the category of außergewöhnliche Dürre (exceptional drought).  Across Germany, it was a disaster for farmers: the potato harvest dropped by 18%, grains yield was down 25%, corn by 47%, and rapeseed by 36%. In some locations, harvests were 50% to 70% less than normal – and in other places nothing was harvested at all.

As of November, 3,700 farms applied for drought aid from government funds, which the federal agricultural ministry stocked up to €340 million. The farmers hope to recover a fraction of their losses – which, though legitimate, is no answer to the problem. Yet, pathetically, it’s the only one the relevant ministry in Berlin has.

Indeed, farmers and experts say that the impact of this year’s extended drought (September and October were dry as a bone) will have serious implications, including for the very near future. Farmers say that there’s no moisture in the soil down to 1.8 meters, and that every square meter of dehydrated soil needs hundreds of liters of water, which will affect what they plant next year – unless a very wet winter replenishes the scorched earth. The water content in the ground soil is too low for autumn plantings, such as rapeseed, which means we already know there’ll be a shortage in rapeseed next year. The price of livestock feed is much higher than usual in autumn and farmers say their feed stocks are lower than ever, which will also push up meat and dairy prices.

The farmers, though, aren’t the only ones who suffered – and now have to think differently about how they will survive in a changed environment. Germany’s rivers dropped so low that commercial shipping along the Rhine, for example, was significantly inhibited; many ships could only carry only 40% of their usual cargos on Germany’s most important commercial waterway. On parts of the Elbe, there was no ship traffic at all. Sandbars never seen before emerged in many places, sometimes revealing undetonated bombs and grenades that had been submerged since Word War II. Gas stations closed their doors because the tankers couldn’t deliver, fuel prices shot up.

Since Germany uses water freight for 80% of its commodity transportation, the biggest cargo clients, including giants such as the chemical conglomerate BASF, are now rethinking their transportation options. Thyssenkrupp, ArcelorMittal and BASF all had to scale down production because of the reduced possibilities for cargo, reported Reuters. The utility RWE ramped down its hydroelectric plant’s electricity generation because of the depleted rivers.

The fact that the farmers and the shippers and industry and the tourists will have to alter their behavior to accommodate a climate-changed environment seems to be setting in (some critics say that German farmers could have, and should have, rethought their crop selection before worse came to worst. The writing had been on the wall since 2003.) The warmer, drier weather implies farmers shifting from water-intensive crops to ones that require less and thrive in warmer regions, such as apples, grapes and plums. These crops actually experienced bumper harvests in 2018. New strategies are under discussion within the German Farmers’ Association for shifting to other produce, keeping soil moist, and halting erosion.

As for cargo, environmentalists have long advocated shifting as much load transport as possible to the more potentially more climate-friendly rail transport — which already runs, in part, on renewable energy. The biggest obstacle to trains carrying more freight, though, is not demand but rather supply: a result of bad management, rail cargo in Germany hasn’t been able to capitalize on the calamity. Nevertheless, BASF is one company is just one company in the process of moving its cargo to trains because of the new undependability of the waterways.

But there’s another catch, too. The steel track rails themselves are affected by such extreme heat. At the heat’s peak, the steel rails expanded and buckled causing Deutsche Bahn to postpone and cancel traffic on certain lines. Rail companies are thus investing in technology that endow the tracks with flexibility to expand without seizing up and cracking.

The take-aways from Europe’s disastrous annus of 2018:

  • Climate change is altering our environs and our lives much more quickly and profoundly than we anticipated only recently;
  • We’re way behind in formulating climate adaption measures for Europe. Proactive strategies are the order of the day, and not just for agriculture and cargo transportation. This is a huge opportunity for innovation, both in policy terms and for the private sector, and a window to reshape economy and society for the better, sustainably;
  • Over the next 25 years, the higher temperatures and the transition to renewable energies will change just about everything in our world. We, and our political elites, have to organize and manage this transition as much to our advantage (or as little to our detriment) as possible – exactly what didn’t happen with globalization.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

1 Comment

  1. aalasti says

    All this, in a country which is still obtaining about 35% of its enegy from coal!

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