VThere is not much left of the Rhine. The drought has turned it into a sad trickle. The level at the important measuring point Kaub between Mainz and Koblenz rose again on Thursday by three centimeters compared to the minimum on the previous day. But the period of extremely low water does not necessarily end there. Hydrologists fear 2022 could break all previous lows, and levels typically don’t bottom out until September. As a result, traffic on Europe’s most important inland waterway has come to a standstill. Chemicals, grain, coal and oil are usually shipped via the Rhine. The replenishment of hard coal for the reactivated Staudinger and Datteln power plants is currently at risk; electricity production could be throttled in the middle of the energy crisis.
Climate change stops climate killer coal – the year 2022 seems to develop a humor of its own. However, companies and power plant operators on the Rhine do not feel like joking around. The low water disrupts the supply chains and drives up the already rising prices. But not only the economy and its customers suffer. Warm water and declining oxygen levels threaten fish and other aquatic animals. The floodplain ecosystems are particularly affected.
The mishap has been apparent for a long time
Monica Ionita saw the drama coming. The hydrologist works at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven on long-term forecasts for river levels. She is not surprised by the low water on the Rhine: “The situation is critical again,” she says, although low water can be predicted for a few months. But the managers of the affected logistics and industrial companies on the Rhine did not seem to care about the problem, although they should know better, she says.
But the situation is not only critical on the Rhine. The water levels on the Elbe are also historically low. That was also announced. Two years ago, Monica Ionita showed in the Scientific Reportsthat the water levels of river courses can be estimated one to six months in advance. In contrast to the weather, runoff is a comparatively sluggish system. If the water levels are already very low in spring and little snow fell in the Alps in winter like this year, the probability of low water in summer is increased. Researchers are observing something similar with soil moisture: droughts build up slowly and are therefore announced at an early stage. That’s why Monica Ionita cannot give the all-clear: “The worst may be just around the corner,” she says, because in some years the lowest water levels are not until October.
“New normal in times of climate change”
Even Enno Nilson is not surprised by the situation, he warned in an essay for the three years ago Geographical review exactly before the scenario that now came true. The geographer from the Federal Institute for Hydrology in Koblenz wrote after the drought in 2018 that the Rhine was heading for a “new normal in times of climate change”: “We have to be prepared for more low water in the future,” he told the FAS a year ago , when floods dominated the headlines. And now the worst water shortage in half a century is looming.
2018 was a wake-up call: Back then, the Rhine had too little water for months, and near Koblenz, the water level fell below the relevant threshold for cargo ships on 81 days. With an interruption of twelve days, the Rhine even had low water for more than a third of the year. Since the river flows freely over 620 kilometers and is not dammed, droughts are quickly reflected in the Rhine. Back then, in late summer 2018, BASF reduced its production and fuel prices rose. Rain only set in in late autumn.