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The Rhine waterway risks becoming impassable because of climate change (bloomberg.com)
142 points by adventured 34 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

Last week, or maybe the week before it, I read an article called “the death of snow” in a Danish newspaper called weekendavisen. It bluntly stated that we might need to get used to the idea of being the only Scandinavian country without snow, and how it would change our national identity.

This got me thinking about a story from my childhood. My grandparents told me that my great grandfather used to work as a sleigh driver during winters at the end of the nineteenth century. I hadn’t believed them of course, I mean, how could one occupy such a job, where you would only be needed a couple of times each year. I had forgotten the story until I read the article about our dying snow. Now that I was reminded, however, I decided to find out if it was true. It was, it turns out that we used to get so much snow each winter that sleigh driver was a legitimate job title. At least until some time during the past hundred years.

I’m sure we would have replaced sleigh drivers with modern snow machines by now. Only the truth is that there has only been one or two winters in my life, where we’ve even had enough snow for a sleigh ride to be possible.

I’m afraid the death of Danish snow, and, the drying out Europe’s most important river, is only the beginning of our trouble.

We were also in an ice age back then.


According to that article, the last little ice age dates to 1850, so that's a bit too far back, no?

Even just 30-40 years ago - back then a teenager, in the 198x in my hometown in European part of Russia i did a lot of cross country skiing every winter. These days, in the last 15 years, they have mostly had stretches of several snowless winters in row, and the winters which would have snow it would be only minor snow, staying for just a few days, not suitable for anything.

Back then, growing tomatoes (private vegetable gardens were a practical necessity in USSR and has since then became national hobby) was a risky business - early August colds and mists would kill the harvest before it gets ready. The cherries and apricots were stuff of dreams available only at the sky-high prices at the private farmer markets from the traiders coming from the USSR South. These days tomatoes, cherries, apricots grow really well with very good problem-less harvests. Anybody wonders why Russia is so quiet about climate change and just continues pumping the oil non-stop polar bears be damned? With each degree of temperature up, another significant part of the country becomes more suitable to live and overall "cold tax" on the Russian economy becomes smaller (whereis the 2 most recent periods of peak cool climate - 190x and 198x - and associated bad harvests/etc. produced great social instability as a result: the revolution of 1905 and the collapse of USSR)

Data for the Netherlands is pretty consistent: https://twitter.com/sustainable2050/status/10866390860671713...

I'm originally from Basel, where the Rhine river is flowing true and very central to the city's history and appearance. We usually go swimming (it's more letting yourself float) in the Rhine in summer by starting at one part of the city and then getting out at the other.

This year it was quite unusual as the current was extremely slow, the water was very warm and you could see that there is significantly less water flowing through. We always talk about climate change but feeling it in ways like these makes it very relatable and real.

> This year it was quite unusual as the current was extremely slow, the water was very warm and you could see that there is significantly less water flowing through. We always talk about climate change but feeling it in ways like these makes it very relatable and real.

One data point (i.e. a year) should not be taken as a sign of climate change. There are always outliers from time to time. When drawing such observations it is more relevant to track exactly the state of the river over extended periods of time (20, 30 years at least) so that you have a real sense of what is happening.

C'mon guy, I'm sure parent poster is aware of how statistics work and the difference between weather and climate. As the weirdening of environment continues, everyone will have a personal story where the consequences of climate change hit home. This is theirs.

> I'm sure parent poster is aware of how statistics work

I can't talk about whom I replied to, but you would be surprised how few people actually get statistics and probabilities right.

If we knew how probabilities worked, we wouldn't be surprised.

Humans unquestionably respond to "stories", especially those with personal impact, more than just statistics. But statistics and fair/scientific data analysis are the correct form of analysis.

Maybe the right thing is some process to analyze the data fairly and then pick verifiably representative instances for deep-dive stories about the change.

(I'm pretty sold on climate change, and increasingly so on CO2/human activity as a major factor, and likely large impact, but I think the costs of brutal CO2 reduction are probably far higher than the costs of alternative remediations. Including costs on other environmental issues -- as diesel fuel in cities vs. gasoline has shown, with one having lower carbon emissions due to efficiency, but the other being cleaner in other emissions...)

It’s not one data point. It’s an additional data point on top of millions of other data points.

This very much depends on the model space in question. If our model space includes “climate continues normally” and “climate gets weird/warm over time” models, then an event that occurs that is an outlier for “normal,” but routine for “warm/weird,” does tip the odds toward “we are in the weird/warm regime, now.” In other words, future weather days, modeled as tokens being drawn from one of two climate bags, are not independent. Each draw of warm/weird makes it more likely that we have switched from the normal bag to the weird one.

mathematically this is just the beginning.. we're about to experience exponential returns..

Yes, and the curve only really started to take off in the last 30 years:

Example: antarctic ice melt:

1979-1990 40 gigatons

1989-2000 50 gigatons

1999-2009 166 gigatons

2012-2017 219 gigatons

(source: Spiegel.de)

The last time period is somewhat misleading, because it is 6 years instead of 10, like the other 3.

Looking at a glance, one could mistakenly assume the ice loss slowed down (as I did initially)

Also, what happened between 2009 and 2012?

how closely did you read this article? I did, but I have the impression you didn't really or not closely

would you mind making a summary of the most important points (on what points the study agrees or contradicts other studies? how soon the lead author of your study expects the losses to be greater than the gains, compensated for the year of publication? does he have an explanation for the mismatch? or does he concede precisely measuring the height by satellite altimeter may be in error? when will a satellite with better height resolution be launched?)

different measurement methods are giving conflicting results.

increased snowfall may cause observable localized increases that add up over time, but that does not necessarily mean the ice sheet is thickening: water expands when forming ice, so pressure from increased weight of snow can melt the bottom layer of ice where pressure is highest.

I don't necessarily see a contradiction between the observations

The article starts out in the present tense, which might give a false impression that this is happening right now. In Cologne, where I live, the Rhine river actually just recovered from a minor flood as you can see on this chart:


(Everything above 4.5m is considered a flood)

One side effect of the low water that isn't mentioned in the article is that it exposed multiple bombs and grenades from the second world war.

I'm originally from the Rhine river area and I still spend time there. It's certainly true that the water level was low this summer, but it was an exceptionally long and hot summer. I found interesting that my grandma labeled the it "a summer like the summers we were used to long time ago".

There's even a famous german song "Wann wird's mal wieder richtig Sommer?" (When will we have a real summer again?).

Btw since it was basically constantly raining from Oct-Dec, the river replenished really quickly.

> I found interesting that my grandma labeled the it "a summer like the summers we were used to long time ago".

Old people often make fact-free claims about how things used to be.

We don't need to rely on faulty human memories. There are actual records of water levels, rainfall, and temperature for all of the 20th century.

It is simply not true that the past summer was something that occurred frequently in the past.

> Old people often make fact-free claims about how things used to be.

It's fun, because if there is something that is really a cliché is people complaining that the weather is not what it used to be. This has been going on for far longer than there has been any talk of climate change. So every time I hear someone saying that you can see climate change is happening because the weather is not what it used to be, I take it with a double pinch of salt.

Alternatively, the existence of the cliche might suggest that (some) climate change is always happening, just on a timescale that makes old people complain, and everybody else just be incredulous.

> Old people often make fact-free claims about how things used to be.

It probably isn't a faulty memory, just one of our inbuilt recall biases. Human minds tend to remember extreme events more vividly. If you think back to past years you most easily bring to mind the unusually hot summers and most biting winters.

The drought was extreme and even the recent rainfalls have not yet replenished the soils.

Also I haven’t heard of any evidence to support that such droughts are normal for Germany.

To put it bluntly, we’re seeing Climate Change in action.

On the other side of the world, in Japan, we had more rain than ever: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_Japan_floods

So, the lack of rain is far from happening everywhere.

That's the point. Weather patterns are changing, not everything shifting to one specific weather. Not everything is getting hotter. Eg Europe for now is getting warmer, but at least the west and north of Europe can actually expect more cold, rather than more heat, as the gulf stream (bringing hot water north) is slowly getting weaker and will, following current trends, at some point reverse itself. The equatorial areas can in return expect much more heat (and no relief by patterns such as the gulf stream) and will increasingly desertify over the next decades.

Sorry the first sentence should read:

That's the point. As the earth overall is heating up weather patterns...

Correlation is not causation... Do we know that weather patterns would not change if the temperature of the atmosphere was not changing?

Correlation does not always imply causation. We live in a world with imperfect information and each of us has to decide the best course of action based on the evidence available. The phrase “global warming” is just a shorthand way of saying that we are adding massive amounts of the energy to the system controlling weather. When we see weather changing whilst knowing that we’ve added a massive amount of energy to the system then a reasonable person concludes causation. It’s the most likely explanation.

Anecdotal points like yours don't really mean much considering the long term trend data mentioned in the article.

It was a very hot, but on top of that an exceptionally dry summer. Even in hot summers, Germany would get rain every two weeks or so, sometimes more often. This year, in some regions it didn't rain for months.

2018 was exceptional, the rain was not enough. There's a great episode of Quarks about this. Absolutely recommended if you speak German (unfortunately no translation seems to be available).

I'm not sure if "ironic" is the right word here, but that as a direct effect of climate change, coal power plants had to shut down and cars couldn't be manufactured is certainly an interesting twist.

Yes, feedback.

But also, shipping by barge uses lots less energy than shipping by rail, and far less than shipping by truck. So overall, it's probably positive feedback.

I grew up in the town below the mentioned Lorelei Rock, St. Goarshausen.

When I was born in 1988 it was the year of was the biggest flood in multiple decades. When I went to elementary school I remembered having to leave our house on planks a few years because of the flooding. It happened just once again in middle school. We moved to Frankfurt in 2003, since then my friends that kept living in the area report that the floods left with me moving away and are sometimes joking if we'd left some faucet running back then.

I guess it's just an example of climate change that I could find in my picture albums without realizing. I wonder what else is lurking in those pictures.

As far as I know, Germany did the same as the Netherlands after the 1993/5 flooding. They increased the leeway the water can have and increased emergency pumps. That might be a better explanation than climate change. But they do not rule each other out.

I don't know about your town, but in Cologne there were massive investments in flood protection after the heavy floods in the 90s. I've been living in Cologne for about 10 years, and almost every year the water gets so high that temporary dams are set up. There are a couple of houses outside the protection area and those have been flooded and reachable only by boat or planks on multiple occasions.

"Critical to moving coal"? Perhaps moving less coal would be a good thing.

With the shutdown of nuclear reactors, Germany is starting to rely more and more on coal plants to provide a stable source of power that isn't dependent on weather patterns (sun for solar panels, rainfall for hydro electric).

In Germany, someone invited me to lunch in a place that, upon walking in, had one of those stickers "close $some_reactor" with a nuclear danger logo on it. I almost told them I didn't want to eat there.

I'm not sure what to do about it. Should I summarize the reasons they are stupid and put those flyers in their mailboxes, or would that only get their backs up? Of course I'd not call it stupid in such a flyer but more in the style of Without Hot Air: 'our energy demands are X because this and that; solar is Y Watts per m² so we need Y/X/$size of them, which would be equivalent to $some_state; of wind turbines we would need ... etc. Meanwhile, $this is what is happening to our climate, which by $year will be $that. With nuclear, we could reduce our output to $amount CO2 while producing X amount of nuclear waste. The waste can be stored $there and this buys us a few hundred years to figure things out for the long term. We need nuclear as a stop-gap. Don't support short-term popular voices that will kill us in the long term."

Does anyone have experience reasoning with anti-nuclears?

There are just way more economic solutions than new nuclear power stations (and the old ones really start to have a lot of issues and have a lot of downtime). Look at Wylfa Newydd, Hinkley Point C, Flamanville 3, Olkiluoto 3 and then you will see that without even starting to include the massive costs of decomissioning and storage there are just way more economic solutions to reduce co2 emissions. When it comes to demolition take a look at Greifswald Nuclear Power Plant [0], which was decommissioned in 1990 and they are not even close to being finished with demolition - after 30 Years, and apparently there are 1000 Workers employed on or at the site.


Is there a study or some other resource of someone who looked at all these cases and calculated a cost, then compared them to these "other, more economical solutions to reduce CO2"? And are those "show hn" style prototypes, or is there anything that actually makes a difference that shows up on national statistics (of a country of your choice)? You make it sound as if there is no reason to go for nuclear at all, while that's not what I hear from others.

Edit: by the way, I did not downvote you (one cannot downvote direct replies) and don't know why you are. Maybe it's because you never mentioned what those economical options are, so your post does not really add much to the subthread without further information?

it's not the newest one (but prices for renewables have improved since and Hinkley Point C got more expensive) but here is one study which partially looks at it:


I'm from germany so most studies I know are in german so sorry for being a bit sparse on english sources and I guess german is of no use to you, If I find the time I'll try to find some more.

Indeed, but Germany unfortunately relies on coal for a large chunk (around 40% [1]) of its electricity production, and it's phasing out nuclear.

[1]: https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/overview-...

If more ice melts in the Alps, how does that lead to lower water levels in the Rhine? One would expect the reverse effect.

There is only so much ice in the Alps. As glaciers retreat, there is less water stored in them. Reduced ice mass means less meltwater, despite warm conditions.

The ice doesnt replenish in the colder periods. Side streams go dry, transporting less water to the main stream.

Yes, glacier melting should mean more water. That is not what the graph labeled "The Rhine river has been receding as alpine glaciers at its source melt" shows.

Another alternative is that, because temperatures are warmer and there is less water stored in the glaciers during winter and less melting in summer, there should be a wider depth variation between winter and summer but a similar average. Also not what the graph shows.

It seems like it is just less precipitation. (Which is climate change, possibly due to global warming)

Probably less water during summer as that came from meltwater. I would assume more water during winter then.

So there's been no diversion or modification of water upstream during the last century?

A search for say, "Rhine river water diverted" returns interesting stuff to read...

Actually no, didn't return much interesting stuff at all. The bottom of the first page had a britannica article from the 1980s mentioning a long standing canal diversion France did in the 20th century, which I sense had low to no impact on the long-term climate sustained decline in water levels in the river.

The top hit on "Rhine river water diverted" is a story about the impact of decline being so strong, traffic is being diverted to road and rail.

It's interesting how dissent in these climate change threads is downvoted to death. I wonder what sort of effect this has on the undecided?

Let me rephrase your question, which should make the answer clear:

> It's interesting how dissent in these round earth threads is downvoted to death. I wonder what sort of effect this has on the undecided?

Reasoning about the role of downvote, I would expect that it reduces the impact of this view on un-decided readers.

My point is being "undecided" on climate change is no more reasonable than being undecided on a round earth or a heliocentric solar system.

Agree.. I actually meant to reply to parent!

For the ones who avoid downvoted comments I can see this resulting. For those who are curious and read a coherent dissent that has been seemingly censored it might have the opposite result.

If they are undecided then downvoting of seemingly coherent responses might convince them the round earthers do not have the better argument, which would be unfortunate.

Anytime an article about "climate change" use words like "could" "might" "potentially" and this one "risks" we are in speculation, not demonstration land.

If the science was demonstrated there would be no need to use these qualifiers. As always read these things with a grain of salt.

Yes, there will be consequences from climate change but it's not something we can't deal with and some of them are at least partially good such as added vegetation.

> Anytime an article about "climate change" uses words like "could" "might" "potentially" and this one "risks" we are in speculation, not demonstration land.

Do you not read a lot of scientific journals? Also, the article uses none of the qualifier words you listed except "risk" in an appropriate manner, in the subtitle. The title is "Europe’s Most Important River Is Running Dry." Is that demonstrative enough for you?

The header is not important as that's used to draw you in and will be the most sensationalist.

What you want to look for is in the actual article and there "risks" is used which is the only important word you need to look for.

Correct, just like when you read an article on HN about how new crypto laws could lead to increased surveillance / decreased privacy, articles like this are trying to promote some sort of change before we end up in somewhere we don’t want to be.

That's not the job of the media as they have no base for that.

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