Climate change impacts the future of inland navigation

An exceptionally dry summer in 2018 has caused havoc across Europe. It has been Germany’s second warmest (only 2003 was warmer) and the second-driest (only 1911 was drier) since records began in 1881. The combination of warm weather and 40% less rainfall than the long-term average has resulted in the most arid April to October period in recorded history.

According to the Center for Disaster Management at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the overall economic impact reached a double-digit billion Euro loss only in Germany. Due to the high-water temperatures of some rivers, power plants were shut down or throttled, thousands of tons of fish died and agricultural crop yield fell. Inland navigation was also negatively affected, proving how sensitive this means of transportation is to environmental conditions.

As a consequence of low water levels inland shipping was partially discontinued on the majority of European rivers. The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration reported about half of Germany’s river ferries stopped running, and river cruise ships were having to transport their passengers by bus for parts of their journey. Cargo ships could only be partially loaded, or for instance on the Danube ships could practically only operate unladen.

2018 was not the first year when extreme weather conditions caused trouble for navigation in Europe. In 2015 the Rhine river was reported to be at its lowest level for 40 years. The lower water level is not only an economic challenge, but as it narrows the navigation way it increases the risk of collisions, which would lead to large environmental problems downstream.

According to the research conducted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, there will be an increasing instability in relation to weather conditions, and extremes are going to occur more frequently. The summer of 2018 might have been exceptional with its intensive drought and prolonged heat, but the likeliness of such weather anomalies is expected to increase in the future, which will make inland water navigation increasingly unstable and unsustainable. For instance, the Rhine’s flow relies not just on annual rainfall, but also on enormous long-term reserves of water in the Alps. Melting snow and glaciers, as well as Lake Constance, feed the upper parts of the river, but with the effects of climate change, these water reserves are lower.

The drought in 2018 skyrocketed freight prices, and some costs are already being felt by consumers, with higher prices for petrol and home heating oil. Developing new inland waterways, such as the E40 is not reasonable, economic nor sustainable, under the scale of the predicted challenges.