Floods, storms, forest fires – events that used to be extreme have become the new normal. Now German officials are building dikes, underground storage tanks and green roofs to avert disaster. Will it be enough?
They were prepared. Several years ago, in 2014, the hospital management had an expert report prepared at the request of the City of Leverkusen. The aim was to clarify whether the hospital was protected from flooding. Its buildings are located right next to the Dhünn River, which winds around the clinic grounds, a gentle 40-centimeter (16-inch) deep body of water in normal times.
The hospital’s technical rooms are located 12 meters (around 40 feet) from the edge of the river. They house the control center for the normal power source, as well as the emergency power. The specialist recommended installing sheet pile walls, just in case. That were fitted, and everyone was satisfied.
The expert’s report claimed that the hospital was protected and argued that it would hold up even during a massive flood. In other words, that it would be safe in the event the water reached a level that statistically only occur once every 100 years. Those were the city’s specifications.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on the evening of July 11, the water began spilling over the banks of the Dhünn. At 7:12 p.m., water sloshed over the street. The heavy rain had caused the Dhünn to rise almost 3 meters. The rooms in the hospital’s basement and its underground parking garage filled up. The water flooded corridors as well as the technical rooms. Around 10 p.m., the electricity went out. The emergency supply took over, but the responders were afraid it might go out as well.
At that point, there were 468 patients in the hospital. The automatic oxygen supply failed, and nurses ran to bring bottles of it to their beds. Equipment that was critical to people’s survival like cardiopulmonary machines had to be run on emergency batteries. The phone system, the computers and their servers were all down.
By midnight, it was clear the power would not be restored. The patients had to be evacuated immediately. During the night, they evacuated the premature infants ward, the intensive care unit and the stroke unit, followed by the other departments the next day. With the elevators out of commission, rescue workers had to carry critically ill patients through the stairwell, along with the equipment they were connected to. In some cases, 10 people were needed to help bring one person to safety.
A few days later, the hospital’s spokeswoman, Sandra Samper Agrelo, describes the dramatic night. She has come to the hospital to meet with the clean-up team and is visibly exhausted. The mud has been removed from the ground floor, but water still covers the floor of the underground parking garage. But through their hard work, the staff was able to prevent the worst during the night of flooding.
But how did the emergency generators get installed so close to the river in the first place? Samper Agrelo answers, “We just didn’t expect a flood like this.”
The mood these days in Germany is one of bewilderment and disbelief. District councilors, mayors and residents alike have all been saying that nobody could have expected a disaster this big. Many simply didn’t believe the warnings that the water would reach record levels.
But when you interview climate researchers these days, they rarely say that the situation couldn’t have been predicted.
They have been warning about increasing extreme weather events for years. Meteorologists recorded 2018 as the warmest year in Germany since weather records began in 1881 – followed closely by 2020, 2014 and 2019. Droughts are on the rise, as is heavy rainfall. Things that used to be considered extreme are now deemed normal.
States, cities and municipalities, as well as individuals, will need to prepare for this. So far, the focus has been on reducing greenhouse gas emissions – the target of not allowing average global temperatures to increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, e-mobility, the abolition of short domestic flights, phasing out coal and imposing speed limits.
But there hasn’t been much talk of climate adaptation – meaning how the country can prepare for and protect itself from the worst effects of climate change. For many, the idea of adapting sounded more like surrender. Daniela Jacobs has been witnessing this phenomenon for years. Jacobs is a meteorologist, climate scientist and the head of the Climate Service Center in Hamburg, which was founded by the federal government in 2009 to advise companies and cities on how to adapt to climate change.
“At first, promoting a plan like this was frowned up,” Jacob says She argues that politicians and researchers had worried it would imply to people that they can protect themselves from the consequences of climate change, and that this would “doom” any attempt to embark on measures to protect the climate. It also wasn’t clear to many what was coming, she says. “Many people thought the summer would get a bit warmer and that was it.”
In 2018, Jacob served as one of the lead authors of the IPCC’s Special Report. “The report shows what has already changed irreversibly on the planet – and what we will be facing if there is a 2-degree rise,” she says. She says the report serves as a wake-up call to do more on both fronts. In terms of climate protection, but also in adapting to the changes that can no longer be stopped.
In 2008, the German government published its first, 78-page “German Adaptation Strategy for Climate Change” report. Every five years, a review is conducted to assess what has been implemented so far. According to the federal government, over 180 programs and measures are currently being run to adapt to climate change. But they don’t play much of a role in the public discourse.
The German Insurance Association recently criticized the lack of attention being played to climate-change adaptation in the country. In light of the disastrous flooding, the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig has called for communities and cities to be better equipped to handle climate change. “It is time, as with climate protection, to launch a large-scale climate adaptation program,” a group of researchers there wrote.
Many German states recently adopted adaptation strategies. The state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia has passed what it claims is Germany’s first climate adaptation law.
Before the latest moves by states, it had mostly been the local governments’ task to prepare for the new environmental reality. Climate researcher Jacob says a lot is already being accomplished at the local level. But she says it is focused on things like rainwater-retention basins and greening pedestrian zones – in other words, small-scale infrastructure. “That’s not as attention-grabbing as climate protection.”
In Berlin, over 18,300 roofs have now been greened. On the North Sea, coastal German states are building massive dikes for climate change that are higher than the normal ones and, most importantly, wider – up to 130 meters – in order to withstand heavier storm surges.
The residential neighborhood 416 is currently being built in Leipzig, with support from the city’s Helmholtz Center. It includes 2,000 apartments on about 25 hectares with green roofs and green space into which water can seep, as well as troughs and underground water storage. Its goal is to redirect rain, cool temperatures, store water and to be prepared for what is to come.
In the city of Offenbach, near Frankfurt, Alexander Jeschke stands by a dike that separates the city center from the Main River. Jeschke is the deputy head of the city’s Office for Environment, Energy and Climate Protection. He explains that the city is investing more in flood protection, and that the dike, which is more than 100 years old, will soon be raised by another half meter.
For a few years now, the water has also been coming from above. In 2016 and 2017, heavy rain cells stagnated over the city, flooding streets and basements, pushing up manhole covers. The water largely pooled where Jeschke is currently standing, near the castle, at the lowest point in the city.
In some cases, Jeschke says, a few centimeters were decisive in whether there would be damage. “An upslope in front of an underground parking garage entryway or a light well can keep water flowing past and not into basements or garages,” he says.
Green spaces, parks and playgrounds must also be used in a targeted fashion to absorb water or redirect it to collection basins as emergency waterways, he says. He adds that multifunctional areas are considered an innovative way of dealing with heavy rain in dense cities.
When a former industrial park in Offenbach was converted into a residential area, the planners included a park that can be flooded. There are numerous green terraces facing the Main River in which water can slowly drain and seep away.
Offenbach has had its own climate adaptation manager since 2017, but it has another problem shared by many large cities: Many people are moving there, which is requiring the construction of housing in new areas. Each day, about 56 new hectares dedicated to housing and traffic are being added in Germany, and about half of that is paved.
Jeschke therefore advocates micro measures, like greening these areas after their construction. He argues that new construction projects also need to be planned in a climate-friendly way right from the beginning. “Climate protection and climate adaptation are our common tasks as humanity in the coming decades,” he says. “Everyone needs to be questioning their own actions and also playing their part.”
The fight against heavy rain is seen as especially difficult – because it can happen anywhere, not just near rivers, improving existing flood protections doesn’t help. It forces people to plan differently than they did before.
Some cities, like Berlin, have built enormous underground storage facilities in recent years to absorb the water from heavy rain. Hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of storage are to be built, with some spaces as large as cathedrals. This is coming at a cost of more than 150 million euros.
Some municipalities record the locations where downpours can become dangerous. Slopes, ground conditions and developed areas are incorporated into rain hazard maps that are used for planning purposes. A 2019 study from the Federal Environment Agency, however, found that only seven of these maps were accessible online. Other municipalities, it said, had produced maps but had not placed them online “for legal or other reasons.”
This is due to concern about property prices in areas susceptible to heavy rainfall. But these maps are the only way municipalities can better plan measures and raise awareness among homeowners. Last month, Hamburg, took the step of publishing a rain hazard map.
“We’re not adequately prepared for such severe storms,” says Theo Schmitt, a professor of civil engineering at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern. He has been working on concepts focused on heavy rain for 20 years, and some, he says, could be implemented quite easily: Sealing basement doors and windows, securing light wells and doors. But he says many homeowners don’t know they live in a danger zones, and even these measures would not help against water levels like those recorded on the Ahr River earlier this month.
Ultimately, Schmitt says, cities and villages need to be built anew, a lengthy and hazardous process. He says it takes two to three years to create heavy rainfall hazard maps. In Rhineland-Palatinate, the state government now covers 90 percent of the costs associated with municipalities developing flood-protection plans.
Several localities along the Ahr River had presented their plans in recent years. The 2018 document from the Altenahr municipality, for example, lists a total of 79 measures, including the purchase of sandbags and the reconstruction of field and farm roads to redirect the water into the grasslands instead of the villages. The municipality also wanted to check whether bridge piers could be adapted to minimize water accumulation.
Schmitt doubts the disaster could have been prevented if the municipalities had implemented their plans. The combination of very heavy continuous rain and extremely large amounts of water spread across the entire river basin, as well as the steep slopes and saturated soil, proved to be especially unfavorable, he said. He says that complete protection is impossible in a case like that.
Even flood maps can only help to a limited extent, as was shown in the Ahr Valley Altenahr, for instance, was flooded by several meters of water – even though the maps suggested that the entire northern part of the town would remain dry even in the event of an extreme flood.
The problem, experts say, is that real floods can be worse than simulated ones. Until now, model calculations have often been based on a rather unprecise method, and they usually don’t reflect the backed-up water caused by debris washing up along a bridge, as happened in the town of Schuld.
Most importantly, such maps rely on historical probability, which doesn’t take sufficient account of current global warming. Hydrologist Andreas Steinbrich at the University of Freiburg argues that extreme risks should also be mapped. These calculations, he says, are based on “very uncertain values” and are not usually based on a worst-case scenario.
Besides heavy rain, there is another threat that is already claiming more victims than any other natural disaster in Germany, even though it does not leave behind immediately visible trails of devastation: heat.
Germany has warmed by 1.6 degrees Celsius (2.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since weather recording began in 1881. Around 1950, there were an average of two “hot days” per year – in other words, days that were on average hotter than 30 degrees Celsius. Last year, there were 11. And in the especially hot years of 2003, 2015 and 2018, there were between 18 and 20 days that registered those temperatures.
Hans-Guido Mücke, an environmental physician at the German Environment Agency, explains how dangerous those temperatures are. “During the heatwave of 2003, for instance,” he says. “We had an excess mortality of over 7,000 people in Germany alone, and over 70,000 people across Europe.”
The elderly and sick are especially at risk because they often do not drink enough, which increases the effects of some medications and can lead to organ failure. “The silent suffering that extreme heat sets off fades into the background in the media reporting,” Mücke says, “because there are no memorable images like there are during a flood or a forest fire.”
In Germany, the number of days of work lost to heat has quadrupled in the last 15 years. That figure was provided by the German government in response to a question submitted to it by the Green Party in the Bundestag, the national parliament. Although 18,570 days of work were counted as lost in 2005 due to “damage through heat and sunlight,” that number was 73,941 in 2019. The all-time record was reached in 2018 with 81,424 lost working days. Man-made climate change is making employees increasingly ill and harming the economy as a result, says Beate Müller-Gemmeke, the labor-market policy coordinator in the Green Party’s parliamentary group.
Cities in valleys or basins, such as Jena or Stuttgart, are especially at risk. But communities can cool down their microclimates some using relatively simple measures. These include fountains and wading pools, and painting facades, roofs and squares in light shades ensures they heat up less. Trees also provide shade.
What may help most in the short term is providing mutual support. Some U.S. cities have set up “cooling centers” – churches, shopping malls or libraries that open their doors to protect the elderly and the weaker from the heat. Businesses display stickers inviting passersby to come in for a sip of water or a cool place to rest.
Neighborly help for those in need can be organized quickly and flexibly says Mücke, the environmental physician. Cities like Offenbach, Erfurt, Cologne, Worms and Dresden are active when It comes to this,” he says. For those wanting to make cities and communities climate-resilient, fresh-air corridors and parks aren’t enough – you also need volunteers and help from the neighborhood.
There is one objection that often comes up the moment the weather goes crazy: This is unpredictable, but not every storm is the result of climate change.
In recent years, a new discipline has emerged in this area. Attribution research seeks to answer the question of whether an event was just weather, or if it was due to the climate? It’s a battle over missing weather data, ill-suited model situations and data sets that don’t want to fit together, Friederike Otto, a climate researcher at Oxford University and one of the leading scientists in the field of attribution research, writes in her recent book “Angry Weather.”
Together with her colleagues, she has studied over 190 extreme weather events around the world, including heatwaves, droughts, heavy rain and floods. In about two-thirds of cases, Otto writes, climate change either exacerbated the events or made them more likely.
Droughts and persistent rain are lasting longer than they used to. The likelihood of heat waves has doubled in Dublin, tripled in Oslo and quintupled in Copenhagen according to calculations from Otto’s team at Oxford, which analyzed weather data going back to 1874.
There is evidence that weather patterns are becoming more and more entrenched, perhaps due to the weakening of the jet stream, the conveyor belt of high-altitude winds that meanders around the earth at an altitude of about 10 kilometers and influences the positions of high- and low-pressure systems.
This might be because, as regions near the poles heat up faster than those at the tropics, the smaller temperature differences slow the jet stream.
Stefan Rahmsdorf at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research argues that the “persistence of weather patterns” also played a role in the July floods, although it’s still too early for an exact analysis.
There is another more banal, but also just as important effect: the warmer the air, the more moisture it can absorb. The possible amount of water increases exponentially with each degree Celsius. Then, when rain-heavy clouds on mountainsides are pushed up into colder air, it can result in tremendous downpours. Weather services try, at great effort, to predict and warn people of such developments.
But sometimes warning people, planning and changing the ways things are built doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes the only thing that remains is a realization that nature is untamable, and that there comes a point where we have to yield to it. The village of Weesenstein, in the eastern German state of Saxony, is a case in point.
Weesenstein is a village of 200 people located in a valley 30 meters deep through which the tranquil Müglitz River flows. In normal times, the water ripples through the pretty village, with its Gothic-Classical castle, at a rate of 0.66 cubic meters per second. If there’s anywhere in Saxony that can be compared to Schuld in the Ahr Valley, where this month’s devastating flooding happened, it’s probably Weesenstein.
The village became famous in the night between August 12 and 13 in 2002. After days of heavy rain, the Müglitz River plowed through the riverbed at a rate, now known, of 89.4 cubic meters per second. Ten homes in the village were completely destroyed. The pictures of the Jäpel family went around the world. They first took refuge on the roof of their house, but when that also collapsed in the flood, they spent hours sitting on their home’s only remaining wall in the raging river until a helicopter finally arrived to help them.
If you didn’t know the place before then, you probably wouldn’t notice the gaps that now exist. The parking lot in front of the castle is full and tourists walk through the village. The Müglitz flows lazily along the wide riverbed. The only trace can be found at the village bridge, which also fell victim to the flood in 2002, where there is a plaque commemorating the families that no longer live there: the Jäpels, the Sobczinskis, the Jahns, the Fritzsches and others. Where their houses once stood there is now a meadow that gives the river space to flood if necessary.
Birgit Lange organized the village’s protection. She’s the operations manager at the state dam administration and is responsible for the Upper Elbe Valley. Lange says the region was flagged as a problem long before the 2002 flood. According to Lange, rapidly draining masses of water shoot down into the valley from the surrounding forests, meaning that the warning period for floods is only two to three hours.
But little was done to prepare Weesenstein before the catastrophe. As early as 1901, the Royal Saxon Ministry of Finance had suggested building a dam above the Müglitz Valley. Then nothing happened. When the Oder River in Brandenburg overflowed its banks in 1997, the Saxony state government decided to build a flood retention basin in Lauenstein. The cornerstone was laid on August 5, 2002, seven days before the flood.
The dam in Lauenstein has since been completed. It is 8.8 meters higher than had been planned in 2002, and the storage volume has been more than doubled to 5.19 million cubic meters. Two more retention basins have also gone into operation in the eastern Ore Mountains and three are in the approval process.
Those responsible have learned from the flood catastrophe of 2002, not just in Weesenstein, but throughout Saxony. There have been 749 projects since the flood, and according to the Environment Ministry, the state has invested 3.6 billion euros ($4.3 billion) in flood protection.
Upstream and downstream of Weesenstein there are now bedload retention areas. Flotsam, debris and tree trunks are to be deposited there during floods to prevent them from impeding the flow of water at bridges. Weirds were removed, embankments secured, floor-protection walls raised and the bridges now have a larger clearance. All of this cost about 6.2 million euros – for a village of 200 people.
The centerpiece of the protection concept in the village is the flood basin, which was created precisely where the people once lived. “It is reasonable that houses have not been rebuilt in this area,” Lange says. In the future, he says, there needs to be more long-term legislation to ensure that nothing is built on natural drainageways.
Climate expert Karsten Smid of Greenpeace, the environmental protection organization, is also calling for more legal regulations. The current flooding shows that we are dealing with “a completely new quality of disaster as a result of climate change,” he says. He argues that similar things could happen anywhere and that any region in Germany could be affected. “We will have to give up some valley locations – we have to completely rethink things now,” Smid says. He argues that homes will have to be moved out of the way, bridges will have to be redesigned and river landscapes will have to be renaturalized to allow water to drain and seep away.
In Weesenstein, there was little resistance to the resettlement after the flood The shock ran deep. Saxony bought up the land and compensated the people affected, most of whom moved to the safety of higher ground.
Birgit Lange has a new, as-yet-unpublished map in her hand. In yellow and red, it shows floods that occur statistically every 100 or 200 years in Weesenstein. It shows that in a record, 100-year flood, some houses would still be underwater, despite all of the measures taken. In case of a 200-year flood, many of the homes would be. When that happens, there’s only one option: fleeing.