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German forests on the verge of collapse: report

Ian P. Johnson
July 20, 2019

Germany’s parched forests are nearing ecological collapse, foresters and researchers warn. More than 1 million established trees have died since 2018 as a result of drought, winter storms and bark beetle plagues.

Forestry worker cutting a tree with a chainsaw
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-D. Gabbert

Germany's forests are undoubtedly suffering as a result of climate change, with millions of seedlings planted in the hope of diversifying and restoring forests dying, warns Ulrich Dohle, chairman of the 10,000-member Bunds Deutscher Forstleute (BDF) forestry trade union.

"It's a catastrophe. German forests are close to collapsing," Dohle added in an interview with t-online, a online news portal of Germany's Ströer media group. 

Read more: Germany records hottest June temperature

Low rainfall last summer saw Germany's rivers reach extreme lows, with some waterways still struggling and forests prone to fire. 

"These are no longer single unusual weather events. That is climate change," said Dohle.

Parts of Germany without forests?

Helge Bruelheide, co-director of Germany's Center for Integrative Biodiversity, warned: "if the trend prevails and the annual precipitation sinks below 400 millimeters (15.7 inches) then there will be areas in Germany that will no longer be forestable."

Lüdenscheid, a densely forested area in central Germany, was no exception, Bohle added. Its precipitation had slumped from one-meter (39 inches) in 2017 to only 483 millimeters last year.

A firefighter holds a hose with water spraying out of it
Hot, dry summers and a lack of rainfall have placed Germany's forests at high risk of fireImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stähle

Catchments in central Europe collected only 10% more rainfall in the first half of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018, a trend exacerbated by uneven wet-then-dry months, Germany's Institute of Hydrology (BFG) reported Thursday.

Low river levels remain unchanged in many parts of Germany, the BFG said, with only the Rhine River currently "unimpaired" for shipping. It's expected to fall in the coming weeks as dry, warmer weather returns. 

'Dramatic tree deaths'

What Dohle of the forestry trade union termed "dramatic tree deaths" began with winter snow dumps in early 2018 which broke branches, weakening the trees' natural defenses and letting in fungal infections, "followed by drought and bark beetle infestation" that killed off European spruce trees. 

One million older trees have since died — not only heat susceptible spruces, but even Germany's prized European Red Beech which had been widely planted over the past decade in the hope of creating climate stable forests, Dohle added.

Where will it end?

Foresters are unable to remember such a dire situation. "We don't know where it will end," Michael Blaschke, spokesman for North Rhine-Westphalia's forestry commission, Wald und Holz NRW, told national public radio Deutschlandfunk.

Depleted forestry crews trying to fix the damage wanted a national forestry summit, said Dohle, saying that extra plantings endorsed by federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner would require extra personnel and resources.

Special trucks have been deployed ahead of the 2019 summer period
The first 20 fire trucks have been delivered to crews across several German statesImage: Bildkraftwerk/C. Bargon

Over the past two decades, forestry personnel had shrunk by 50%, Dohle added. 

Special fire trucks ordered

Anticipating an increased wildfire risk, Germany's BBK Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance Agency announced on Friday that it had begun distributing 300 special fire trucks to Germany's 16 states.

Configured for fighting forest fires on rough terrain, each vehicle costs around €223,000 ($251,000).

The first batch of the German-designed vehicles had been handed over to fire brigades in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, the BBK added.