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CLIMATE CRISIS

No longer evergreen: Germany eyes diversity to save forests

Once a sea of green, thousands of spruces with brown crowns and charred trunks now stand in a forest in eastern Germany, testament to one of the most ferocious forest fires to have ravaged the region in years.

Forest fire near Beelitz
Burnt tree trunks following a forest fire near Beelitz in Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Germany recorded its worst bout of forest fires in 2022, and experts believe such calamities will only intensify in the coming years because of climate change.

Foresters are now racing to make the woods more resilient, including by giving Germany’s forests — known for its acres of evergreens — a complete makeover.

If they are successful, Germany’s forests will in the future no longer be populated primarily by rows of spruces, but by a mish-mash of tree species like oaks, aspens and lindens.

Walking through the tree skeletons in the dry woods near the town of Beelitz, forester Martin Schmitt peeled off the black bark of a tree, saying: “You can clearly see the charred tree trunks that have burnt down on the outside. If we look up now, we can already see a lot of brown crowns.

“Many, many trees are now dead, as we can see… And these trees will also not recover.”

READ ALSO: How climate change is threatening Germany’s forests

Generational task

In June and July, the fires that consumed 200 hectares (500 acres) of the forests in Brandenburg swept close to Beelitz town itself.

Across the state of Brandenburg where Beelitz is located, about 1,411 hectares were affected this year alone, about three and a half times as much as the annual average of the past 10 years.

Besides recurring drought, the monoculture composition of the forests has also made them more vulnerable.

For foresters, an urgent task at hand is to introduce diversity in the tree population.

“Forest transformation is the core work of my generation of foresters,” said Schmitt.

The patch of woods with charred trees will now be left alone for a while, to determine which trees might recover. In time, the plan is for deciduous trees to take over the space occupied by spruces that fail to regenerate.

A polyculture forest is generally more resistant to the consequences of climate change such as drought or pest infestation, the forester said.

Deciduous trees in particular release water into the air in a process called transpiration at a higher rate than conifers, and as a result, “the forest is ultimately much, much cooler and therefore the fire risk is much lower than in a pure pine forest,” said Schmitt.

Opportunity

Post-war Germany had turned to the rapidly growing spruces and pines to repopulate woodland stripped for energy and other necessities during the conflict. The conifers also proved valuable commercially as the manufacturing giant revived its economy.

But as the weather warms, the evergreens with their shallow root system are left gasping for water, and as a consequence, are unable to produce vital resin that helps protect them against insects.

In recent years, mass deaths of forests in iconic places such as the Harz mountain region where Goethe once hiked and composed odes to nature, have traumatised Germans, who see forests as a part of the national soul.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

A desperate search for a cure is on, and the agriculture ministry has ploughed over a billion euros into reviving the country’s forests.

With its huge swathes of woodland, Brandenburg state began its shift away from monoculture evergreens in the 1990s but it is a task that takes decades.

Ironically, the recent acceleration in frequencies of forest fires may speed up the process.

A short drive away from the the tree skeletons, Schmitt pointed to a patch of spruce forest that burnt down in 2018.

“Three years later, we have trees there, some are more than six metres tall,” said Schmitt, pointing to the oaks and aspens that have naturally taken root.

Forest fires in Brandenburg

Dead trees in a stretch of forest near Treuenbrietzen, Brandenburg, that was hit by forest fires this year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

“This is a natural forest development that sprang up in May 2019. In April 2019, it was all still completely brown — a complete desert, not a green leaf in the area,” he recalled.

Ingolf Basmer, an official at Brandenburg state’s forestry department, also said it was the right time to advance the forest transformation.

“We have to view it as an opportunity to develop multi-layered, diverse forest stands and not to fall back on the motto of ‘we do everything according to a pattern, uniformly’.”

He underlined the uncertainties of undertaking a transformation that could take decades to complete in an environment which is changing rapidly because of the climate crisis.

READ ALSO: Germany only has four glaciers left as climate change melts Alpine ice

But he said there was no other option.

“We really have to start pushing this a bit so that we don’t waste time that we don’t actually have, even with these long time frames,” he stressed.

By Julien Gathelier 

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WEATHER

‘Clear indication of climate change’: Germany logs warmest year on record

Looking at data from 2,000 measuring systems around Germany, the German Weather Service (DWD) said that 2022 marked the warmest year on record through November.

'Clear indication of climate change': Germany logs warmest year on record

“Never since 1881 has the period from January to November in Germany been so warm as in 2022,” said DWD spokesman Uwe Kirsche in a statement on Wednesday.

The average temperature for the first eleven months of 2022 was 11.3C, according to the weather service in Offenbach. The previous high was set in 2020, at 11.1C for this period. 

The temperature average for autumn alone was 10.8 degrees – an entire 2C degrees higher than it was between 1961 to 1990, which is used by meteorologists around the globe as a point of reference. 

Clear indication of climate change

The period from January to October was already the warmest on record, with an average temperature of 11.8C. For meteorologists, autumn ends with November, whereas in calendar terms, it lasts until December 21st. 

It is “a clear indication of climate change;” that the warmest October months of the last 140 years all fall in this millennium, said DWD.

READ ALSO: ‘A glimpse into our climate future’: Germany logs warmest October on record

Autumn 2022 could have easily been mistaken for summer in some regions of Germany, it said. The mercury reached the highest in Kleve on the Lower Rhine on September 5th, where temperatures soared to a sizzling 32.3C.

weather Germany september

Beach goers in Westerland, Schleswig-Holstein on September 25th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Molter

Rainy regions

The mild weather extended into November, before temperatures took a dramatic dip in many parts of the country. 

In the Oberharz am Brocken, the mercury dropped all the way to -11.6C on November 20th, the nationwide low for this autumn.

READ ALSO: Germany to see first snowfall after mild November

But despite the early warm spells, autumn was also “slightly wetter than average,” according to DWD. An average of around 205 liters of precipitation per squar metre fell across Germany.

That was about twelve percent more than in the reference period from 1961 to 1990. Compared to 1991 to 2020, the increase was about eight percent.

The Black Forest and the Alps received the most rainfall. Utzenfeld in the southern Black Forest had the highest daily precipitation in Germany with 86 litres per square meter on October 14th. In contrast, it remained very dry in the northeast. 

However, there were also a fair few bright, sunny days for people to enjoy. According to DWD, the sun shone for a good 370 hours this autumn – almost 20 percent more than in the period from 1961 to 1990 and 15 percent more than in the period from 1991 to 2020.

The North German Lowlands saw the most sun, with residents there getting a solid 400 hours of sunshine over autumn. 

Temperatures to drop this week

Just in time for the start of the meteorological winter on December 1st, temperatures will drop significantly into the low negatives in many parts of the country.

On the weekend, there is a risk of permafrost in some regions of eastern Germany. The nights will also become increasingly frosty, with snow expected in many regions by the end of the week.

Roads are expected to turn icy, but with no major snowstorms, said DWD.

READ ALSO: Will Germany see more snow this winter?

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