The Rhine's Low Levels Signal Climate and Trade Concerns

The Rhine's Low Levels Signal Climate and Trade Concerns

The Rhine river is one of Europe’s most vital waterways, running more than 760 miles through major cities in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. But now, as the continent swelters through a massive heatwave, the Rhine’s water levels are so low that soon barges carrying goods won’t be able to make the journey. In Kaub, Germany, where the river bottlenecks, a drop of another 15 inches or so will mean ships carrying heavy cargo (which sinks lower) won’t be able to pass. Sending lighter loads is one solution, but it lacks economic and environmental efficiency.

Autumn, not summer, is not usually the river’s dry season. So, the Rhine’s water levels are expected to sink even lower over the next few months. This is especially worrisome for Germany, as about 80% of its goods shipping by inland waterways rely on this river.

Voice of America: Climate Change Blamed for Historic Low Water Levels in German Rivers, November 11, 2018.

Why This Matters

All heatwaves today were made more likely by human-caused emissions, according to Friederike Otto at Imperial College London, a pioneer in the field. "I think we can very confidently now say that every heatwave that is occurring today has been made more intense and more likely because of climate change,” Otto told New Scientist.

While accepting climate change is intensifying heatwaves and droughts is one thing, it’s another to see how it plays out. For Europe, the Rhine River is especially vital to the transport of agricultural products, commodities like coal and oil, and chemical production. Its low levels put the supply chain at risk. The impact the river’s decreasing water levels will have on trade is just one of many examples of why the "business as usual” approach to climate cannot continue.

Last week, just before leaders from 40 countries gathered in Berlin for the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, a study was released that found weather events amplified by the climate crisis have cost Germany around €145 billion over the last 20 years. In a call to action during the talks, the nation’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated, "The climate crisis cannot be overshadowed by other crises since it acts like a catalyst. Even though other crises might seem more important than climate change right now, we can’t delay.” Study | Climate change costs Germany billions annually, July 18, 2022.

America's Hot, Dry West

In the US, hot and dry conditions are especially pronounced in the West. The region’s unprecedented dryness has been dubbed "aridification” by scientists studying the phenomenon. Such conditions include drier soil and scorching summers, making bark beetle outbreaks and wildfires more likely, possibly leading to a die-off of California's pine and cedar forests.

Also of increasing concern: Water. But not for logistics, for drinking and farming. The country’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are at critically low levels. The reservoirs’ shrinking is so dramatic that it can be spotted from space. Feeding both reservoirs is the also alarmingly low Colorado River, which provides water for about 40 million people and around 5 million acres of farmland. Such conditions have prompted water use negotiations among states. But so far, tribal nations also relying on the river have been shut out of discussions.

CBS: Megadrought in the West threatens energy and water security, May 5, 2022.

ABC: Colorado River named country’s 'most endangered,' April 18, 2022.

DW: Water crisis in Southern Europe | Severe droughts and scarce rain force water restrictions, July 5, 2022.

DW: Italy in grips of severe drought as Po river dries up, July 3, 2022.