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The Never-Ending Summer

Is Germany's Heat Wave a Preview of the Future?

Germany is currently experiencing a state of meteorological emergency. Although many are enjoying the scorching summer, the heat wave has left others with health problems and also led to a drought. Is this a preview of how climate change may soon change our lives? By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Tuesday, 8/7/2018   11:39 AM

It's early August in Germany, and the country is worried, cantankerous and uncharacteristically sluggish.

The country's recent dramatic heatwave has seen the water authority in Chemnitz impose a ban on pumping water out of ponds or other urban waters, with the Chemnitz River only 25 centimeters deep in some places. Those caught taking water can be slapped with fines of up to 50,000 euros.

In Gotteszell in Bavaria, a regional railway line had to be shut down because the tracks warped in the heat.

And in the city of Bochum, beer brewer Moritz Fiege had to appeal to customers to return their used bottles because he had run out of bottles and crates.

Meanwhile, at the Berlin Zoo, zookeepers are freezing fish, apples and carrots, so they can provide polar bears with chilled food. And in Hamburg, the Hagenbecks Tierpark zoo has installed lawn sprinklers for its alpacas.

Germany in the summer of 2018, feels a bit like a country under a hair dryer. A golden, shimmering summer, as disturbing and strange as it is enjoyable. The sun has been beating down relentlessly and has caused a drought. So, what is this? Is it finally a summer worthy of the name or are we already in the middle of climate change? Is this what the future is going to feel like?

In the city of Kassel, two of the three lanes on the A7 motorway had to be closed because the material began melting in the asphalt joints. In Achim near Bremen, burglars stole ice cream worth 170 euros from a delivery service's freezer. In Hamburg, some indoor swimming pools have been closed so that the staff can be deployed at outdoor swimming pools.

Some are celebrating. The Association of the German Confectionery Industry (BDSI) notes that ice cream sales are up 11 percent over the previous year. As are brewers and operators of solar power plants, which are periodically producing more electricity than 20 nuclear power plants.

Many Questions, But Few Answers

A whole country is decelerating into an almost Mediterranean atmosphere. Much that was important has receded into the background, and people seem mostly interested in weather news, weather tips and weather experts. There are many questions, but surprisingly few answers. The summer is so big and our knowledge about the climate still so limited.

In the meantime, the price of potatoes is climbing on the commodity futures exchange. Temperatures are so hot in the state of Schleswig-Holstein that police are no longer being required to wear their official caps until at least Aug. 10. The drought has meant fewer mosquitoes and fewer weeds because even weeds need water. Electricity is getting more expensive because power plants aren't feeding the warm cooling water into the heated rivers. All in all, it's unbelievable.

When public broadcaster ARD ran a special on the heat last week, airing just after the usual evening news broadcast, it attracted 4.35 million people. The dry season has turned many of us into victims and all of us into witnesses to history in the making.

Germany this August is a country that is slowing down voluntarily in many places, but also coming to an involuntary halt in others. It's a country that is now finding time for the essentials: Time to enjoy things and time to reflect. But is this unusual summer a foretaste of what lies ahead?

Not entirely surprisingly, the science currently available doesn't offer a clear answer to those questions. The climate is a complex thing -- there's more to it than just weather. The climate is a mixture of politics and science, good intentions and scaremongering. Those looking for them can detect patterns everywhere, where others at most observe circumstantial evidence.

Weather, weather experts say, has much to do with psychology. As with earlier disastrous winters, earlier summers of the century are dramatized, romanticized or simply wiped from our memories. In fact, contrary to the perception of many people, the summer of 2018 hasn't even set a new record for a heat wave. Indeed, it has only been since mid-July that temperatures in large parts of Germany have been above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

'Somebody Is Always Complaining'

It is true that the Germans are sweating, but it is also true that there have been times when it was even hotter. During the 2006 World Cup, when the Germans were on a high as hosts of the event, their "summer fairy tale," July was 2 degrees Celsius warmer than it has been this year. And rather than complain about it, people celebrated. Whether temperatures are perceived as invigorating or distressing is highly subjective.


Graphic: Drought months per year

"Somebody is always complaining", says Jörg Kachelmann, Germany's best-known meteorologist. "For some, summer only starts at 35 degrees in the shade, but others consider that to be Saharan heat." In Kachelmann's mind, it's "sheer nonsense." Typically, summers in Germany are known for their capriciousness, and the rollercoaster weather that the tabloids love to report on is perfectly normal.

What makes summer 2018 an exception is the unusually long period of heat. Such a persistent period of fine weather, with lots of sunshine and little rain, occurs on average once every 10 years at most in the country. And given the lack of rain, it's not the heat that's the problem, but the drought -- especially in northern and eastern Germany, where there has been virtually no rainfall in some places since May.

This may be due to climate change, but it may also be unrelated. Germany has also experienced extreme droughts in previous years. In 1992, for example, when wheat withered away in the fields, wells dried up and priests prayed for rain at church services. Or in 1971, when forest fires flared up in many places across the country. Or in 1947, when even drinking water became scarce.

What we do know is this: The reason for this endless summer is a so-called Omega Block. Usually, a strong high-pressure area has already formed by the spring, which is wedged between low pressure areas (the formation gets its name from the fact that it resembles the Greek letter Omega). For months, an omega layer barely moves from the spot. In the manner of a bellows, it temporarily weakens and then quickly rebuilds itself.

This year this stable weather situation arose over Scandinavia. With the sun shining all day long, the dry mainland air has heated up continuously, even in northern Europe. The huge high-pressure cell directs the warm air as far as Germany. On its way south, the warm Scandinavian air hardly barely cools and, as such, forms a heat dome over Germany.

Hotter than Rome

Bernburg in Saxony-Anhalt was the hottest spot in Germany last week. The German Weather Service (DWD) measured 39.5 degrees Celsius on Tuesday: hotter than Rome.

Matthias Hirsekorn is the head of the Ameos Hospital in Bernburg. It provides care for people who are unable to cope with the heat. Senior physician Claudia Schmidt works in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Bernburg facility. She has seen how people have literally been dragging themselves to the emergency room in the last few days. Elderly people who have had too little to drink, young people who thought that even in this heat they could go jogging.

The treatment is almost always the same. Schmidt runs tests in order to check electrolyte levels. If necessary, infusions and drinks are administered and the patient is kept in a reasonably cool room. But even that is getting difficult to find. The emergency rooms and operating rooms are, of course, air-conditioned. But the standard patient rooms aren't. There are roller shutters on the windows. In the internal medicine department, they've also installed fans in the corridors. And at night, the nurses become ventilation managers: All the windows have to be opened and then closed again at sunrise.

Typical patients these days include a cyclist riding along the Saale River with little shade, a man who harvested potatoes in the midday heat or people who've drunk beer in the sun and forgotten their hats. Most are treated as outpatients. And drinks and infusions are often enough to get them back on their feet.

Hospital staff can even order special summer uniforms with thinner fabric. They're also provided with free beverages. Hospital director Hirsekorn personally walked through the departments and delivered ice cream to the staff.

Emergency physicians see heat fatigue on a daily basis in midsummer, as well as sunstroke and potentially lethal heat strokes -- often diagnosed in people who have passed out. If a person loses too much salt through sweating, that can also cause a seizure. Joggers, mountain bikers or Nordic walkers are particularly at risk if they continue exercising even when the asphalt is melting outside.

With these temperatures, most emergency calls are placed from retirement homes. A common problem is that there aren't enough caregivers to ensure that the elderly get as much water as they need. The mineral water provided in old people's homes and social services, is often also low in sodium. Tea, coffee and fruit juices are also of little use unless salt is added by other means.

The consequences can be cardiovascular problems, kidney failure and even cardiac arrest. There's a lower risk for most healthy adults in Europe, but the higher temperatures do present a risk, especially in people with pre-exisiting conditions who are over 70. More than 40,000 people died in Western Europe during the last major heat wave in 2003. In Germany alone, 7,000 people died. The victims were mostly elderly, but the heat also killed poor people, homeless, small children and also a large number of people suffering from chronic illness.

Doctors have an unsentimental technical term for the phenomenon: Temperature-related excess mortality.

People taking medication are also at greater risk. Dehydrating drugs, for example for people with heart problems, can cause patients to get dehydrated more quickly. Anti-convulsants and antidepressants can also affect the heat balance. Antihypertensive drugs for lowering blood pressure can also increase the risk of harmful effects from the heat.

The body has a sophisticated system that can withstand even extreme heat. It emits a lot of heat through evaporation, a process better known to us as sweating. Humans have around 2 million sweat glands and can release more than two liters of sweat per hour through them. The less a person replaces the liquids that have been expelled through sweat, the less sweat that person produces.

Are We Peeking at the Future?

Drought affects well-being, but also changes public space: It transforms the landscape from green to yellow and it also causes people to relax their attire and their behavior. The Roman historian Tacitus, who was very familiar with high temperatures, once wrote of the Germans: "Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure."

The summer of 2018 provides a hint of what the future might feel like for us Germans, for us Europeans, indeed humanity in general -- on an earth that is one and a half, two or even three degrees warmer than it is today, in which extreme weather conditions are no longer perceived as extreme, but as normal. The heat is also hitting a country that has become sensitive. A country that has suddenly begun worrying about general weather conditions, about the probability of rain and about the medium-term and long-term forecasts. A country that is eagerly awaiting the harvest report for the first time in years because a surprising number of things are dependent on the 2018 harvest: the price of milk and the size of french fries, the quality of wine vintages and the availability of everyday produce: bread and beans, potatoes and peas.

Germans are learning new terms in these weeks: Emergency aid and emergency harvests, "blow-ups" (when the asphalt buckles), apple sunburns and low water situations, the term used by inland waterway operators to describe low water levels that endanger river navigation.

Suddenly, people are showing an interest in niche issues, from barbecue tips and sunblock factor levels to legal questions ("can you lie naked on the balcony?") -- all united in the feeling of experiencing something historic, the beginning of something new, unknown and perhaps even sinister.

In Westerrade, located 25 kilometers northwest of Lübeck, Dietrich Pritschau, 57, stands on his paddock staring at withered sugar beet leaves lying on the ground. For at least six generations, the family has made its living through farming. He runs the business together with his wife Cathrin, his brother Klaus and his son Tyll. "I've never seen anything like this before," says Pritschau. "It all looks so sad the way it is lying there."

Pritschau holds a degree in agricultural engineering. He cultivates more than 1,300 hectares with the help of 14 employees and 2 trainees. He farms 75 hectares near Westerrade, and the rest of his property is located in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

These days, his staff are harvesting the last fields about three weeks earlier than usual. The corn stands in the sun with bright, rolled up leaves, they have the pale color of cacti, not the rich, northern German green. On some fields, Pritschau has already treated the stubble, a kind of weed control with tractor and disc harrow. While working, the tractors drew a cloud of dust behind them.

Pritschau grows nine fruits, five of which he has already harvested. In the barley sector, this year's crop failed by 28 percent compared to the average of the past five years. The figure was 26 percent for rapeseed, 45 percent for rye and 47 percent for wheat.

For him, this dream of a summer has turned into a nightmare. "It's the weakest harvest of my life", says Pritschau, who has been in business for 31 years.

Last year was already a disappointing year for grain farmers in northern Germany. After months of rain, the water in many fields was still so high that many farmers were unable to get their planting done before the frost arrived. But without cold stimulus, winter wheat doesn't bear any fruit. This is why summer wheat -- a variety that yields one-fifth less than its cold-dependent twin -- only got planted in many fields in February.

The German Farmers' Association (DBV) is forecasting harvests of 6 tons per hectare of winter wheat due to the drought, or 20 percent lower than 2017 yields. That's the bad news. The good news for farmers is that prices have also risen 20 percent in the past four weeks alone.

But questions still persist. Is what we are experiencing this summer really evidence of climate change, every sunburn and every hot and sweaty night? Is this summer the final, irrefutable proof that the planet is heating up?

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