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From heat waves to wildfire: Is Germany prepared for climate extremes this summer?

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DPA/The Local - [email protected]
From heat waves to wildfire: Is Germany prepared for climate extremes this summer?
A wildfire in Jüterbog, Brandenburg earlier in June. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Cevin Dettlaff

Germany is already experiencing heat-induced forest fires and drought. What other climate challenges will this summer bring, and is the country doing enough to prepare?

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Sprawling forest fires have broken out in various parts of Germany, and there have been unusually long-lasting high temperatures for the past couple of weeks. 

The early summer has been a tough one - and is probably only the prelude to further hot and dry months, say climate experts.

"The outlook for this summer - also based on the fact that we haven't had any real rain in Germany for almost five weeks - looks more like a dry, hot summer," climate expert Kristina Fröhlich of the German Weather Service (DWD) told DPA. 

Weather extremes like these are now being examined more closely by the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency (EEA) in an online platform titled, "Extreme summer weather in a changing climate: Is Europe prepared?" 

It listed the following weather extremes that Germany - and Europe as a whole - could face this summer, as well as what’s being done to mitigate their harmful effects as much as possible.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: What's going on with Germany's weather right now?

Heat waves

According to the EEA, heat waves will become more frequent, more intense and more prolonged as a result of climate change. The summer of 2022 was already a "summer of heat waves,” the organisation wrote.

In fact, last summer was the warmest ever recorded in Europe. In Spain and Portugal, temperatures rose to over 45C in some places, but heat records were also measured in northern Germany, among other places. 

And heat kills, as was shown in the summer excess mortality in many countries, especially in the three-week midsummer phase starting mid-July 2022. 

Jogger in Cologne during a heatwave

A jogger runs through a field with dried-out grass during a heatwave in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

In Germany, twelve percent more deaths were recorded in July than in the average of the July months of the four previous years. According to official statistics, between 5,000 and 20,000 heat-related deaths have occurred in Germany each year over the past decade.  

Through seasonal forecasts, the DWD has calculated an 80 percent probability that people will face a hot, dry summer in 2023. 

"That means many hot summer days with over 30 degrees, which will then be very exhausting for Europeans and also for us in this country,” said Fröhlich.

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To better protect people from the rising heat, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) announced a plan on Tuesday to better prevent heat-related health risks and deaths. 

This "Heat Plan Germany" is to be drawn up in the coming weeks, based on a similar plan in France. 

Lauterbach's message: Germany is currently not well positioned against heat-related deaths.

Flooding

According to the EEA, floods like the recent ones in northern Italy will also become more frequent and more severe. They are expected to increase, especially in northwestern and central Europe. 

Adaptation measures are urgently needed to prevent the worst effects, such as the flood disaster in Germany’s Ahr valley in 2021 in which 185 people died amid flash flooding.

READ ALSO: Why have so many people died in the German floods?

Submerged cars and other vehicles are seen on the federal highway B265 in Erftstadt, western Germany, on July 17, 2021 after heavy rains hit parts of the country, causing widespread flooding and major damage. (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP)
 
The disaster prompted criticism of Germany's flood warning system and a criminal inquiry was opened into local officials for "negligent homicide".
The government has since pledged to introduce phone alerts in the form of "cell broadcasting" and to reinstall sirens, many of which have been taken down in recent years.

Not only lives are at stake, but also the livelihoods of many people. As the EEA calculates, the damage caused by floods in Europe from 1980 to 2021 amounted to almost €258 billion - and the trend is rising. 

In light of increasing climate-related weather extremes, German insurers warned on Wednesday of sharply rising premiums for building insurance.

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Droughts

Droughts are also no longer just a problem for people in more distant regions of the world such as Africa or Australia: since 2018, more than half of Europe has been affected by extreme drought conditions, wrote the EEA. 

Crop yields of maize, soybeans and olive oil, for example, were significantly reduced by the drought in 2022, and the already dry and warm winter does not bode well for this summer.

Long-term climate forecasts indicate that it will become even drier in the course of the century, especially in southern and central Europe - with devastating economic consequences for agriculture, but also with impacts on drinking water supplies.

In Brandenburg, for example, there are many lakes where the groundwater level is sinking, and some lakes are no longer there. The soil is then drier, and this leads to an increased risk of forest fires.

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Local city governments, including those in Berlin and Brandenburg, are currently developing water rationing plans to decide in which industries water use should be prioritised.

They'll also planting more trees to increase the number of shady spaces, and setting up emergency drinking water wells.

Fires

Forest fires, such as the one currently raging in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg, will also become more frequent.

For Somidh Saha, who heads a research group on this at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany is "now a forest-fire country".

READ ALSO: How high is Germany's risk of forest fires right now?

According to the forest fire statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture (BMEL), the most forest fires since 2010 were recorded in Germany between 2018 and 2020. 

And last year, there were more than 500 fires in forest-dense Brandenburg alone - the highest number in years.

Firefighters in a forest fire Bavaria

Firefighters extinguish a forest fire in Heimbuchenthal, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ralf Hettler

"Summer is just getting started. Frightening when you think about what could still be coming," Pierre Ibisch, a forest expert and professor at the Eberswalde University of Applied Sciences for Sustainable Development told regional broadcaster rbb. He said the risk of fires is increasing with climate change.

"Most forest fires in Europe are triggered by human activities, but climatic conditions - dry and hot phases with strong winds - determine their intensity and impact," explained the EEA. 

There are strict rules in force across the country to protect forests. Open fires are strictly prohibited in all forests and nature reserves in Germany – with campfires, grills and camping stoves all falling under the ban.

And, from March to October, there is also an absolute ban on smoking in forests across the country.

READ ALSO: Wild peeing to paragliding: 7 offences you can be fined for in Germany's great outdoors

Diseases

As if that were not enough, climate change is also increasing the risk of infectious diseases such as dengue fever. That's because, according to the EEA, a warmer climate means that both indigenous and non-indigenous disease vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes can spread northwards and reach higher altitudes.

To address all these problems, adaptation to and better preparation for climate change is crucial, the EEA stressed. 

Fröhlich agreed: ‘We should have been prepared for this multiple summers ago.”

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A lot of regions in Germany are starting to hire climate adaptation managers and there is a government programme where local authorities can apply for funding for projects to create climate adaptation strategies.

"But, of course, developing a strategy and then implementing it takes time," Dr. Diane Rechid, head of the Department of Regional and Local Climate Change at the Climate Service Center Germany, recently told The Local.

"I think there is still a lot of need for action, especially in smaller municipalities which have hardly any resources and also limited personnel."

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