Drought, heat and dry soils in Germany – Climate Change intensifies Climate Crisis in Europe

Drought, heat and dry soils in Germany – Climate Change intensifies Climate Crisis in Europe

Since 2018, new records have been set in terms of droughts, hottest months and driest years in centuries. The drought, heat and pests have been affecting the forests more and more since 2019 and unfortunately there is no improvement in sight in 2020 either. In Germany there was the most severe forest damage in over 200 years. Fires and storms have greater effects, because of the large amount of damaged wood and the tree damage, there are more problems with pests and fungal attack. Fine dust and environmental toxins from agriculture give many plants and animals the rest, especially insects such as bees suffer from environmental destruction. Air pollution, insecticides and pesticides are not only a danger for bees, they also endanger many other species, especially in areas of agriculture and livestock farms. Many of the typical trees and forests in forestry are monocultures and conifers such as douglas firs, spruces, pines, larches and firs – unfortunately they do not offer much nectar. Almost 80 percent of the conifers were felled because of damage. At just under 70 percent, the proportion of damaged wood in 2019 was more than three times as high as in 2010. As already described in the article on the Leipzig Oak Park of Diversity project, even strong tree species such as oaks are affected. Whether from pests, powdery mildew or drought stress, the plants suffer very badly from drought. Like many deciduous trees, oaks are deep-rooted, which draw water from the lower soil layers. What they don’t need themselves, they release closer to the surface. This makes oak a good soil regulator, for example through its pronounced symbioses with microorganisms and fungi. Oaks and other robust trees suffer from climate change, as do many people and animals. Damage to trees and forests is not only caused by fire, drought and heat waves, but also by fungus, pests, snow breaks, storms, floods and environmental toxins – as well as air and water pollution.

There are around four billion hectares of forest on earth. There are around 60,000 tree species worldwide and over 10,000 of them are threatened with extinction. According to an assessment by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), more than half of European tree species are endangered. Of the approximately 450 tree species, 265 do not occur on any other continent. More than 150 species are threatened, 66 species are at the highest level of endangerment and therefore close to extinction. In total, more than 28,000 animal and plant species are listed as endangered worldwide. These are data and statistics from recent years and some of the figures are already out of date, especially after the massive droughts and forest fires. It can be assumed that many more species are now threatened and in some regions even extinct.

According to climate research, long-term studies and weather experts, extreme drought is becoming normal in Europe in summer. In spring there is also a lack of water for healthy plant growth in many places around the world. The soils and forests can hold less water because the important reservoirs are not only dried out but damaged, i.e. the storage capacity is reduced and in some cases reduced for years. If middle and deeper soil layers harden, humus layers decay to dust or are destroyed, even a lot of rain does not help at first. It then takes years of moderate rain and much plant growth until these soil layers are loosened and watered again. Trees, hedges and other plants that can form complex, strong and deep roots need a few years to loosen middle and deep soil layers. Many plants lose branches, leaves and fruit during a drought or extreme drought. The proportion of trees with significant crown thinning increased to about 35 percent in 2019. If the trees and plants are generally weakened, they are more susceptible to parasites and other pests such as bark beetles, jewel beetles and processionary moth. In most cases, the damaged wood cannot remain in the forest. Much of this wood is not suitable for wood processing or high-quality products for the construction and furniture industries. Often the only option left is to process it into inferior wood products such as chipboard or wood pellets. A lot of damaged wood has been coming onto the market since 2018 and the price of wood has collapsed dramatically, the forecasts for 2021 and 2022 do not look any better. There is currently so much wood per year that would normally be enough for three years or more. The forest and wood industries are recording massive losses, and even cheap oak is already being sold as firewood. Forest companies and forest owners will have to work for a long time to compensate and repair the damage of recent years.

Future challenges, conflicts, wars and crises because of the worldwide water availability and water supply

The water reserves in the soil are becoming increasingly scarce, the soils are becoming drier overall. It has been relatively dry in Germany since 2015. The past two years exceeded the previous record drought of 1976. At that time it was exceptionally dry for five years and some tree species were replaced or supplemented by drought-resistant species such as hornbeam, service tree and field maple. But the adaptation of forests to the crisis and forest restructuring makes no sense if the groundwater will levels sink, lakes, rivers and water reservoirs partially dry up. Dry periods in winter are also a big problem, because when there is no snow there is much less water due to the melting of snow. The problem has been known for a long time, for example the lack of water supply due to the disappearance of glaciers and large areas of snow or ice. When mountains and oceans absorb more sun, the planet heats up even faster, especially at the North Pole. Fires and very hot times in northern areas of Russia also accelerate the thawing of the permafrost soil. Similar to the largest share of the greenhouse gas methane from agriculture or livestock farming, methane is released by the decomposition of the thawed biomass. As this happens in a very short time, the atmosphere, biosphere and weather systems cannot simply compensate for this, resulting in extreme climate changes and an increase in extreme weather conditions. For some years now, climate researchers have been able to prove the connection between extreme drought and severe flooding. In the meantime, there have been several fires, droughts and floods of the century, not only in Germany and Europe – but unfortunately also in Africa, America, Asia and India.

According to various surveys, around 80 percent are very concerned about the persistent drought. In France, Poland, the Czech Republic and other European countries, the spring was marked by low rainfall this year. French forests are very much endangered by the drought years and the hot summer of 2019. It was one of the deadliest heat waves in all of Europe, killing thousands of humans. The harmful effects of the droughts can be clearly seen on satellite images, many brown and gray fields in Europe and many large cities such as Berlin are affected. It affects especially regions in the north and east, in principle all federal states are affected. The cities in particular need more greenery, as they can heat up much more as the surrounding area. What you see more and more often are dry meadows, trees and bushes. The parks and water areas are therefore just as important as the greening of roofs and facades. The soil moisture, the total groundwater level and the groundwater levels in different regions of Germany are too low, at least in relation to normal amounts of precipitation and water levels. In April 2020, there was far too little rainfall in almost all federal states; the states of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia were particularly affected. The soil moisture in the topsoil and total soil is simply too little for many plants. Due to the lack of water available to plants, drought stress or water stress quickly occurs. The photosynthesis of the plants and the growth decrease. If the usable soil water continues to fall, plant water stress occurs and the plants begin to dry up.

The drought monitor of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research showed that the total soil in large parts of Germany was characterized by extreme to extraordinary drought in April and midsummer 2020. Similar to the drought monitor from the Environmental Research Center in Leipzig, there is also a research project in Switzerland called Drought CH or Trockenheit.ch, where information on the current situation is shown. The colleagues also summarize a lot of interesting data from the last few years. Such information is becoming more and more important, especially if conflicts over water resources increase in the future, whether in the energy industry for cooling or in agriculture for agricultural irrigation. It affects many European countries. If the water reserves become increasingly scarce, conflicts of use over water resources can be intensified considerably. The use of water, water resources and water management must become more economical or more sustainable so that there is not another water crisis in the next few years. Using ponds, water towers and underground water reservoirs to collect rainwater makes more and more sense, especially when you consider that around 80 percent of all irrigation throughout Germany is done with groundwater. An increasing demand for water from agriculture contrasts with other usage interests and problems, such as the public supply of drinking water, over 70 percent of which is obtained from groundwater. In addition, forests consume a lot of groundwater in dry times, this can affect rivers and other waters. The drought year 2018 and 2019 severely dried out many soils and water reservoirs, to compensate this it takes many years of rain above the usual annual average. Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony are the federal states with the lowest rainfall. Specific figures can be found on the relevant weather portals and statistics pages.

Forest dieback, desertification and expanding deserts in Europe

Due to the third year of drought in a row, there will also be considerable problems for the plant world in winter and spring 2020, as many soils and plants will not be able to recover so easily under these extreme conditions. The garden, park and forest maintenance is therefore more important than ever this year, every citizen should lend a hand in his spare time, even if it are just a few buckets of water for the tree in front of the door or some irrigation for bushes, hedges or trees at the streets. Unfortunately, awareness of sustainable use and the problem of water waste is still not taken seriously. The production of one kilo of beef requires around 15,000 liters of water, pork almost 6,000 and chicken 4,300 liters. The average water footprint in Germany is 3,900 liters per person per day. This figure includes the amount of water that is used for the production of consumed food and goods in one’s own country, but also the water that is needed, for example, for the manufacture of clothing or electrical appliances abroad. This also applies to ‘more ecological’ electric cars, which unfortunately are still made with a lot of coal, plastic and oil. The coal electricity for car production and rail traffic alone is astronomical.

2019 was the hottest year in the history of Europe, according to scientific findings, with the drought year 2018 and the drought summer 2020, it is now the worst drought in a row for 250 years. The droughts and heat waves of recent years clearly show that the climate crisis is having a significant impact on our lives, the environment, consumption and our economy. An adaptation of the plants to the more extreme climate occurs naturally, but should be supported and improved by sustainable strategies of climate change adaptation. This should not only apply to crops or to livestock, but also especially to endangered species. The selfish nature, way of life and work in certain areas of society and industry, such as fossil energy, monotonous agriculture and forestry, is harming the environment. Selfishness, ignorance and little will to change in the direction of sustainability, nature and environmental protection have produced a destructive chemical industry, energy industry, aviation, shipping, heavy industry, monoculture agriculture and monotonous forestry.

The biodiversity, soil and water quality have suffered extremely, valuable landscapes and habitats have been destroyed or have been lost due to rigorous greed for profit and environmental degradation. If things continue like this, even regardless of the climate crisis, there will soon be no more fertile land, only dust and desert. Greening Deserts Climate analyses and long-term studies, in coordination with international climate researchers and climate models, have repeatedly confirmed an increase in extreme weather conditions – even before the drought years or floods of the century, as in Europe and India in 2018 and 2019. There have been several warnings that extreme droughts and floods will become more frequent in Europe, initially in southern Europe and, with further drought years, also in central Europe. This has now even been confirmed in a study by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig. Now all we need are realistic solutions and feasibility studies to counteract these extremely rapid changes. A wind of change is blowing.

Usually the jet stream with the high and low pressure areas moves from west to east and brings Central Europe a mix of sun, clouds and rain. However, with the accelerated climate change, the high pressure areas tend to persist for weeks over some European regions in summer. As a result, there are long heat waves and droughts, in the low-pressure areas there are more frequent heavy rain and floods. Various temperature and heat records have been set over the years, in 2020 there were many cold summer nights and very large temperature fluctuations. Due to the many dry and windy days, the drought has increased overall. The logging caused by wind and storm damage amounted to 18.5 million cubic meters in 2018. That is four times as much compared to the previous year. There are many forest fires because the soil and top layers with branches, leaves or needles are very dry. The risk of fire is also very high for agriculture, especially when dry fields catch fire, for example from careless drivers and smokers or from broken glass. A field fire, forest fire or forest fire is no fun because it can spread to settlements.

In many German cities there is a state of emergency, as the asphalt and concrete deserts often heat up more than the surrounding areas can quickly reach heat records of over 40 degrees. Many people, animals and plants die. In the Frankfurt metropolitan area, thousands of dead trees will probably have to be felled due to the weeks of drought and heat in the midsummer 2020. Particularly in the driest areas of Germany, many villages and towns are affected by the tree death. Due to the drought stress and plant water stress that has damaged and weakened the plants over the years, a relatively short heat phase is enough to give the plants the rest, then often watering them does not help. On the contrary, too much water at once can even damage the plants, for example if the plant cannot absorb much water due to a large part of dried up leaves, there is then a risk of accelerated root rot at the high temperatures, which can occur more often with tap water and dried out roots. If many of the deeper soil layers have completely dried out, the water cannot drain off properly, and waterlogging then forms in some places. Gardeners and plant experts know the problem. So if possible use rainwater and then not too much at once, preferably over a large area and spread over a few evenings. If the soil is not too hard, you can put drainage in some places with a pointed stick. If the soil is slightly damp overall, the rainwater can then penetrate better into deeper layers and root areas.

Climate change knows no borders, large parts of Europe are affected by drought and water scarcity. We need an adaptation and improvement of the water management or regulation as soon as possible in order to secure the public drinking water and industrial water supply in the long term. The fear of the consequences of a third year of drought is great, especially if the water table drops, entire rivers and lakes dry up. The drought threatens historical gardens and even well-known parks, the drought also has an indirect effect on all plant growth in the area. Only if the spread of healthy and relatively wild nature is promoted by favorable conditions nature as a whole can recover and regenerate. In the case of monoculture agriculture and monotonous forestry, this is difficult, but not impossible. Some consequences can only be felt years later, as environmental and weather systems sometimes react very slowly. It is similar to the nitrate or slurry problem, where in some extreme cases the groundwater wil be polluted over the years.

Really serious consequences for agriculture are still to come, probably in the years 2025 to 2030. From 2013 to 2015 there have been massive changes in global weather systems and cycles. Many of these changes also occur gradually and over long periods of time, so they cannot be seen as clearly as the consequences of a drought summer. So that you can really change something sustainably and positively, you should think in time windows of over 10 years or even decades. It is frightening to see even natural mixed forests which are suffering from climate change. The drought years even have a strong impact on humid areas, as the groundwater level often falls due to the long dry periods. Wetlands and bogs can dry out, which increases the likelihood of bog and forest fires. In addition, there are the problems of peat extraction and the drainage of landscapes for agriculture. The diverse forest conversion and the expansion of wetlands such as floodplains and moors must finally be given priority. Many nature reserves, national parks, natural regions and near-natural landscape protection areas should be expanded and connected, if possible for example with flower strips and wild meadows. Protected areas in nature and landscape protection should also be expanded and include urban regions and larger city parks or city forests. Special wilderness biotopes for a relatively free development of really ’natural nature’ should be made possible in the protected areas. Because nature is not the same as nature, at least according to the understanding of society and people.

Soil quality and healthier soils through more ecological forestry and sustainable agriculture, as well as better water management, are important to mitigate the negative consequences and effects of climate change. The already often mentioned building up of humus, cultivation of deep-rooting plants, soil improvement and green manure plants can contribute significantly to soil formation and improvement of the overall soil. Protective layers with ground cover and wildflower meadows can protect the soil in particularly hot and dry times. The principle applies, just let it grow and support nature in the development of biodiversity with natural seeds. Naturally with suitable species depending on the region and vegetation zone, i.e. suitable plants of / for mountainous areas, wetlands, grasslands, meadows and forests. To do this, one should think more about aquatic plants and then use them to improve water bodies. Because a large part of the rivers and lakes in Germany is in a precarious state, at least when it comes to the ecological aspect, neighboring agriculture, shipping and biodiversity. Without ecosystem services, human life on earth would not be possible. Worldwide, around 60% of the ecosystem services examined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are in a critical state; they are at great risk from environmental pollution and environmental damage.

We all have to help make whole landscapes more diverse and resistant to climate extremes, including urban regions and cities – for this purpose, among other things, the Urban Greening Camp project started. More urban greening, solar and water surfaces as well as lighter surfaces can cool down urban areas, so-called for near-natural recreation areas and biological diversity. Agriculture based on solidarity and community gardens are also good solutions that can bring more biodiversity and community profits.

Here are a few more suggestions for improvement.

  • Alternative water storage above and below ground, e.g. moats or ponds with clay or foils which will be filled with rainwater.
  • The bioeconomy, organic farming and solidarity agriculture have innumerable potentials, you just have to recognize them.
  • Soils rich in humus can store up to four times their own weight in water.
  • Stone dust from basalt can bind large amounts of CO2 which is absorbed by rainwater when it falls to the ground. Weathering creates carbonates, which are washed into the oceans by the rivers.
  • Extended use of rainwater reservoirs in the ground which are filled up with tarpaulins in spring, some gardeners and farmers use cold frame films or weed fleece anyway, this could be used sensibly for rainwater harvesting.
  • More wetlands and the expansion of wetlands can improve the water balance and water cycle. Different aquatic plants not only increase biodiversity, but are also good against drought.
  • The concept of agrophotovoltaics can also be used to collect rainwater. Classic drip irrigation can become even more ecological and economical with rainwater and water towers.
  • As already described in some articles, hemp plants can be used for soil improvement and a higher moisture content. Industrial hemp also improves biodiversity, produces a lot of humus thanks to the pronounced roots and it loosens the soils.
  • Deep roots and sprinklers such as desert bamboo can loosen hardened soils for a short time, especially in the middle areas of the soils. Subsoiling can also be achieved by using special agricultural crops.
  • Organic farming and forestry with more mixed cultures and more environmentally friendly energies are advisable.
  • More exchange between biologists, agricultural experts, climate researchers, forest scientists in connection with climate protection and environmental protection makes sense.
  • Adaptation of useful and important plants to climate change, finding and researching resistances in relation to extreme conditions, plant growth and yields.
  • Establishing more sustainable agriculture (EcoFarming) and more ecological forestry (Ecoforestry) with clean technologies (Cleantech) and green techniques or technologies (Greentech).
  • Agroforestry, Ecoforesty and Mixed Cultures are good solutions to combine reforestation, greening and sustainble agriculture. Mixed tree, food crop farming (Mixed Cropping) and environmental greening has much potential to improve the air, environment, soil and water quality.
  • Innovative and diverse reforestation or forestation of former forest areas and man-made deserts – these are some reasons why the Trillion Trees Initiative was founded.

Professional advice and recommendation to good addresses and contacts in the above areas for corresponding consideration is possible, for this you can simply contact the author of this article by email.

Greening Deserts analyses and research projects have been dealing with climate change and extreme weather conditions such as exceptional heat, drought and floods since 2016. Despite all the optimism, the prognosis for the coming years does not look rosy. It takes a lot of effort, motivation and support to be able to work and live normally throughout the crisis. Cohesion is more important than ever in these times, egoism and ignorance only make things worse. We need more solidarity and courage, whether through useful information, the exchange of experiences or other meaningful actions. Simply going out into the streets unfortunately does not bring as much as taking part in constructive actions and actively participating in constructive actions for species protection, climate protection, nature conservation and environmental protection. For example planting trees, watering urban trees and plants, sowing wildflowers and caring for parks and meadows. Leaving this to others like the green space authorities or city cleaning is not a solution. In some countries or regions the corona crisis can result in massive financial problems and financial crises. There will be a lack of funds and resources for many of important environmental tasks or work in future. We all need to hold together in relation to the health of us all and the environment. Healthy ecosystems are the basis for a healthy life.

The global economic crisis and COVID-19 recession (Great Lockdown) will occupy society and the economy for many years to come. In principle there are several crises, e.g. the education crisis, health crisis, cultural crisis and social crisis. Greening Deserts articles also deal with these topics, especially in relation to the effects, consequences and causes of climate change. Many potential solutions are offered, but most of them can only be solved together – some of the suggestions have already been implemented personally or privately. I hope that many will follow. Good additions, ideas and suggestions for improvement are of course always welcome. @ feedback.greeningdeserts.com. Your friend of nature, Oliver Gediminas Caplikas. The next article deals with climate change adaptation and urban greening on many levels, for example with vertical farming. Heat-resistant and drought-tolerant plant species as well as special climate change woody plants will play an important role. Some of the plants are even drought-resistant or have a high ‘drought resistance’.

About the author

DesertGreening administrator

Greening Deserts projects are cultural, educational, economic, social, scientific and sustainable developments using classical greening or gardening methods but also new or alternative techniques and technologies. Focus is on biodiversity, climate protection, cleantech, ecological forestry, ecosystem restoration, environmental protection, greening, greentech, reforestation and species protection. The projects can reduce human-made climate change, deforestation, droughts, desertification, land degradation, global warming and pollution worldwide.