German forest fire risk spikes amid high temperatures, drought

Author Jeanette Cwienk | 21 April 2019


Sun and warmth might seem like the perfect weather for Easter. But experts warn that Germany is far too dry, almost everywhere in the country.

Sun and warmth might seem like the perfect weather for Easter. But experts warn that Germany is far too dry, almost everywhere in the country.

Normally, the lucrative cash crop known as rapeseed, or canola, blooms throughout the German state of Thuringia at the end of May. But this year, you would look in vain for the yellow blossoms that are usually turned into one of the western world’s main sources of cooking oil.

According to Andre Rathgeber of the Farmers’ Association of Thuringia, the prognosis for rapeseed is so bad, most farmers have decided to clear the land for other crops.

This is because the land is far too dry, especially in the key area about 60 cm (23 inches) below the surface, said German Weather Service (DWD) meteorologist Corina Schube.

Forest fire alert level raised across Germany

German winters are supposed to be rainy — 210 liters per square meter (51.5 gallons per square foot) — but the average in recent years has dropped to only 180. And that amount is far from evenly distributed. This winter, the Black Forest was doused in 300 liters per square meter, while much of Thuringia saw only 25.

This amount of water is usual for a subtropical region, but certainly not for Germany. The drought is particularly dangerous for Germany’s forests, where even in the relatively cooler northeast, increasing temperatures have brought the forest fire danger level to either “high” or “very high.”

The risk is especially dire for the country’s many pine forests, where extremely thirsty trees drain the soil much more quickly than other types of timber. Unusually massive storms in recent years have added to the problem, as now dead wood and leave litter the forest floor in much greater amounts — making perfect kindling.

These storms also greatly weaken trees, making it harder for them to withstand the periods of drought. The drought, in turn, means trees such as pines produce less resin, making it harder for them to defend against invasive insects.

500 million trees died in summer 2018

Another way unusual weather problems are exacerbating Germany’s risk of forest fires and poor crop yields is a drought in some areas and far too heavy rainfall in others. The latter can wash away freshly planted seeds, ruining a harvest.

German agriculturalists have tried to combat climate change by planting more deciduous and fewer coniferous trees. However, the shorter roots of new trees mean they cannot reap the benefits of moisture buried deep underground, and they tend to wither much more quickly.

Sebastian Schreiber of Germany’s Agriculture Council said that 500 million young trees died in the summer heat wave of 2018.

Forestry experts are now promoting the creation of specialized, diverse forests, with plants specially chosen to protect each other from drought, storms, and parasites.