In a rather blunt and still unimaginable depiction of seasonal drought compounded by global warming, hale German forests are starting to die. With some forestry workers describing the situation as “catastrophic,” prolonged drought and unnatural heat are jeopardising German forests’ long term sustainability. Lumberjacks put the number of trees at risk in the millions, as some 110,000 hectares of forest were damaged in 2018.

Apart from such observations on the ground, scientists have corroborated the fact that swathes of German forest are in imminent danger of dying. Spruce needles are producing a kind of constant rain as they fall from the heat and dryness, while notices have been erected in several parks warning hikers of the dangers of falling branches. Researchers at the country’s Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems have noted that some 33 million m³ of timber have already been declared dead or lost to harvesting.

In the woods where the Brothers Grimm saw a Big Bad Wolf lure Little Red Riding Hood, all is not well. Fiercely proud of their forests as a whole, German citizens are alarmed at the prospect of dying trees.

Old forest fragility exposed

For many Germans it’s an impossible and painful imagining that their giant old forests succumb to adverse planetary conditions. German forests are clearly in danger of doing just that. A combination of factors have contributed to the current state of decline, but heat stress is paramount among them. Poor annual rainfall that has subjected forests to drought, damaging winter storms as well as a notable bark beetle infestation have all contributed.

Over 1 million adolescent or mature trees have died since 2018, apart from seedling losses. Millions of saplings have failed too due to the manifesting effects of climate change. These seedlings were planted in an attempt to restore forests’ diversity and extent, but are now dying off en masse. Ulrich Dohle of the Bunds Deutscher Forstleute (BDF), a forestry trade union representing more than 10,000 members, said: “It’s a catastrophe. German forests are close to collapsing.” The relevant arms of government, forestry workers, and now too the German population is aware that there is a national crisis playing out in the woodlands of home. With record high temperatures this past June, trees are suffering, while the whole environment remains dangerously prone to wild fires.

The “dramatic tree deaths” that Dohle and his colleagues are reporting began with heavy winter snows that broke many trees’ limbs. Suitably stressed from a previous season of subpar rain, many trees then succumbed to fungal infections. The lack of ensuing, normal rainfall as well as an accompanying bark beetle infestation has killed many especially European Spruce trees.

Particularly tragic, the more than a million trees that have since died are not only the heat intolerant Spruce species, but also prized European Red Beech trees. Planted extensively for the last decade or more, they were hoped to engender a more resistant, climate-stable forest.

A partially deforested Germany?

The poor rainfall last summer meant that many of Germany’s rivers sat at record lows. Many are still below par, while surrounding forests are unusually prone to fire. Dohle added that, in his opinion, “These are no longer single unusual weather events. [This] is climate change.” The co-director of the national Center for Integrative Biodiversity, Helge Bruelheide, has also warned that “… if the trend prevails and the annual precipitation sinks below 400 millimeters, then there will be areas in Germany that will no longer be forestable.”

Wild fluctuations in precipitation are no good for established forests, and authorities have observed severe swings to less than half of the anticipated seasonal rainfall recorded in some areas over the last few years. The densely forested Lüdenscheid area was mentioned by Dole as an example, where precipitation had dwindled from 1000mm, to but 483 millimeters in 2018.

The fire risk has risen to the point where authorities are scrambling for additional resources. The first of 20 new fire trucks have already been delivered to fire crews in several German states. A total of 300 will be distributed around the country. With forestry personnel having shrunk by some 50 percent over the last 20 years, managing recovery or battling forest fires also poses a challenge, one the authorities will need to address.

German forestry workers are calling for a summit to map out exactly how to turn things around and how many hands it will take. European catchments have collected but 10 percent more rain in the first six months of 2019 than they did in 2018, making for a continuing drought. Even lifelong foresters are unable to remember such a dire situation.

German forestry personnel understand they’re dealing with a crisis. Speaking on national radio, Michael Blaschke, a spokesman for the North Rhine-Westphalia’s forestry commission, Wald und Holz NRW, said: “We don’t know where it will end.” The German government is looking to emergency relief funds for machinery and personnel to both combat infestations and fires, as well as plant more trees in more places faster than ever before. Everyone will be hoping for the next summer rains to be normal, in order to finally quench two seasons of dry, damaging weather.

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