Status: 03.10.2023, 07:10 a.m.
By: Ulrike Hagen
The effects of climate change are unmistakable. The Rhine is also severely affected. Researchers say that in 30 years, Germany's largest river as we know it will no longer exist.
Frankfurt – Man-made climate change is having an increasingly clear impact – worldwide: drought, extreme weather and ever new temperature records are also the order of the day in temperate latitudes such as Germany. And just like elsewhere in the world, the climate crisis is the biggest cause of falling water levels everywhere.
The Rhine, Germany's largest river and one of the busiest waterways in the world, has also been severely affected. Researchers have found that the Rhine as we know it today will soon no longer exist.
The effects of climate change are unmistakable. The Rhine is also severely affected (archive image). © Christoph Hardt/Imago
Science convinces: In 30 years, the main source of the Rhine will dry up
Extreme weather conditions will continue to dominate the year 2023. What's more, temperatures in Europe are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world. One consequence: a problematic water lull in Germany, which is particularly evident in the falling river levels. According to the research network Correctiv, more than 40 districts in Germany alone declared a state of emergency last summer or have already had to ration water. And in the future, the situation may worsen, scientists warn.
Low water has also been a major problem on the Rhine for years. But this year, the water level of the river has already halved in places at the beginning of March. For example, a water depth of 1.16 meters was measured at the Kaub gauge in the Middle Rhine Valley. Normally, the depth of the Rhine here is around 2.40 meters. Drone footage showing historically low water levels in Italy this summer gives a glimpse of what could threaten the Rhine in the near future.
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Climate change endangers water level of the Rhine: Threat from dwindling Alpine melt
In addition to heat waves and persistent drought, the lack of snowfall in winter is also causing a problem for rivers: climate change is leading to warmer winters, which is also leading to a decline in snow reserves: "The Rhine or the Danube are strongly influenced by the snowmelt in the Alps. Less snow and earlier and shorter melt reduce runoff in summer and early autumn," climate scientist Peter Greve told tagesschau.de.
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Climate change: Researchers give the Rhine another thirty years – then glacier tributaries will dry up
This year, the summer heat caused Alpine glaciers to collapse. Meteorologist Andreas Wagner affirms in a SWR report: "It must be assumed that in about 30 to 40 years there will be no more water flowing into the Rhine from the glaciers".
The consequences are serious: In midsummer, the amount of water in the Rhine could decrease by up to 50 percent, which would have significant consequences for the drinking water supply, industry, agriculture and flora and fauna. "The effects of these changes are significant and affect everyone who uses water along the Rhine: Rhine navigation and with it the important transport of goods will be affected, power plants and electricity suppliers will be able to produce less electricity and drinking water suppliers will have to prepare for more frequent water scarcity situations," says the transnational Commission on the Hydrology of the Rhine (CHR).
Falling Rhine levels: dramatic consequences for humans, animals and plants
For the people along the Rhine, this means a serious threat to their water supply. In cities like Cologne, drinking water shortages and rising prices for available water could become a reality.
"In areas with heavy agricultural use, water can become scarce during the summer growing season because the plants need a lot of water then. The water supply from water bodies for irrigation will increase and exacerbate the low water situation," says the report of the research project on the influence of climate change on Rhine runoff for the near (2031-2060) and distant future (2071-2100).
The impact on wildlife is also alarming. Habitats for rare bird species and wetlands are being lost, while higher water temperatures and lower oxygen levels in the water further worsen living conditions. Toxic algae and cyanobacteria will multiply, putting further strain on ecosystems.
The Rhine will not disappear completely, but life along the river will change dramatically, the scientists predict. Humans, animals and nature have to adapt to new conditions.