In October 2018, one of the longest dry spells on record has left part of the Rhine in Germany at record-low levels for months, forcing freighters to reduce their cargo or stop plying the river altogether. About half of Germany’s river ferries have stopped running, according to the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration. Photo: Gordon Welters / The New York Times

By Christopher F. Schuetze
4 November 2018

KAUB, Germany (The New York Times) – Just after sunrise, Capt. Frank Sep turned to his ship’s radio for the defining news of his day: the water level in Kaub, the shallowest part of the middle section of the Rhine, Germany’s most important shipping route.

The news was bad, as it so often is these days.

One of the longest dry spells on record has left parts of the Rhine at record-low levels for months, forcing freighters to reduce their cargo or stop plying the river altogether.

Parts of the Danube and the Elbe — Germany’s other major rivers for transport — are also drying up. Some inland ports are idle, and it is estimated that millions of tons of goods are having to be transported by rail or road.

With castles and vineyards dominating the river banks near Kaub, just five miles from the Lorelei rock, named for a siren who was said to lure sailors to their deaths, it would be easy to forget how important the area is to German commerce. It is roughly halfway between the inland ports of Koblenz and Mainz, and virtually all freight shipped from seaports in the Netherlands and Belgium to the industrial southwest of Germany passes through here.

On a day in late October 2018, Captain Sep learned that the river was just 10 inches deep. That meant the water in the man-made shipping channel dredged near the center of the river was about five feet deep, down from an average of about 11 feet. Even with cargo at one-third of its usual weight, his 282-foot freighter Rex-Rheni — the King Rhine — would have only inches of water under its hull.

“I’ve never experienced so little water here,” said Captain Sep, who has been working on the river since 1982, the last 22 years on the Rex-Rheni. “It’s becoming so low that it’s very difficult for ships to pass.”

An exceptionally dry summer has caused havoc across Europe. A trade group in Germany put farmers’ losses at several billion dollars. The German chemical giant BASF had to decrease production at one of its plants over the summer because the Rhine, whose water it uses to cool production, was too low. […]

Wild tomatoes are growing in the Rhine riverbed in Bonn. In October 2018, one of the longest dry spells on record has left part of the Rhine in Germany at record-low levels for months, forcing freighters to reduce their cargo or stop plying the river altogether. Photo: Gordon Welters / The New York Times

About half of Germany’s river ferries have stopped running, according to the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration, and river cruise ships are having to transport their passengers by bus for parts of their journey. Thousands of fish in the Swiss section of the river died because of the heat and low oxygen levels.

There are reasons to believe such weather will become more frequent with a warming climate.

“Our research shows an increase in instability,” said Hagen Koch, who studies rivers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The extremes are going to happen more often.” [more]

The Rhine, a Lifeline of Germany, Is Crippled by Drought

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