Why the forest is ill-prepared for climate change

DThis summer there were fires in many of Europe’s forests, including Germany. Parts of Saxon Switzerland have been on fire for two weeks, and the situation is worse than ever. Hundreds of firefighters from several federal states are tirelessly trying to extinguish the fire. 15 helicopters from the Bundeswehr, police and private providers are in use almost non-stop. They dip containers into the Elbe and fly the water up into the mountains, where, directed by emergency services on the ground, they extinguish the fire with pinpoint accuracy. They have already transported many millions of liters of water, but it is not all enough. 150 hectares of forest are in flames. What would help would be rain, but it hardly ever falls.

Reinhard Bingener

Political correspondent for Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Bremen based in Hanover.

Stephen Locke

Correspondent for Saxony and Thuringia based in Dresden.

It’s been like this for years. The climate is getting hotter, the soil is getting drier, the fires are getting bigger. In the future, the Germans will have to change their forest in order to preserve it. You have to thin it out, cut aisles and remove dead wood. The forest is then no longer the same, but at least it is still there.

Anyone who thinks that is an exaggeration underestimates what is to come. “We are at the beginning of a development,” says fire ecologist Johann Georg Goldammer from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. He sees the German forest before a dramatic change. “The climate models have proven to be correct,” says the Freiburg professor. “The year 2018 was the turning point.” The researchers surveyed consider the objection that the relevant statistics for the previous years do not show any long-term increase in forest fires in Germany to be misleading.

A “full fire” must be avoided at all costs

“This is not climate hysteria,” says forest economist Bernhard Möhring from the University of Göttingen. In order to understand the statistics correctly, you have to take a close look at the climate, the forest cover and the behavior of the people. During and after the Second World War, for example, there were frequent fires in the forests. Today, thanks to mobile phones, forest fires are reported earlier and can be fought faster, which reduces the damage area. The devastating forest fires in the 1970s, during which firefighters also died, had to do with the then young and very dense pine trees that had been planted in Lower Saxony after the war on the nutrient-poor and sandy soil. In such stands, so-called full fires can easily develop, in which the treetops also burn. This must be avoided at all costs because it causes lasting damage to the forest. A rapidly passing ground fire with a short dwell time is not so bad, the trees can survive that. “Such areas are green again after a short time,” says forest economist Möhring. The fact that less forest burns in the statistics in no way means that the forest is less combustible.

Hanspeter Mayr, spokesman for the Saxon Switzerland National Park Administration, in the forest


Hanspeter Mayr, spokesman for the Saxon Switzerland National Park Administration, in the forest
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Image: Robert Gommlich

A fireproof forest does not look the way conservationists would like it to. Many national parks leave the forest to its own devices, with dead trees lying around everywhere. This promotes biodiversity and stores water, which is why it was considered particularly desirable for a long time. The forester Peter Wohlleben published a video in which he pressed firmly on a piece of dead wood and let the water run out. Dead wood lying on the ground is a cooling water reservoir, he says. So does it help against forest fires?

The fire ecologist Goldammer is of a different opinion: “The deadwood is now flying around our ears.” In Saxon Switzerland, the dense and mixed-age natural forests with lots of deadwood burn particularly well because everything is dry. Wohlleben’s statement that deadwood is almost always damp can no longer be held up, even for forests with a considerable layer of humus, says Goldammer.

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