By Andy Eckardt and Yuliya Talmazan
HAINICH, Germany — As forester Dirk Fritzlar walks through thick woodland on a sunny September morning, it starts to “rain” spruce needles.
“It is not normal for the trees to shed so many needles. It is far too dry. Many spruce trees are dying,” Fritzlar said as he peeled off a piece of bark. He quickly finds a colony of bark beetles that are a major threat to the spruce — a common species in German forests.
In the last two years, Germany has experienced long summer droughts and rising temperatures, both of which are putting the country’s woodlands in peril.
The potential fate of this forest and millions of German trees shows the danger climate change and changing weather patterns pose to biodiversity and raises questions of how states and citizens should protect their local green spaces.
In 2018 alone, 110,000 hectares (about 272,000 acres) of forest area in Germany were damaged and 33 million cubic meters of wood — equivalent in volume to 12 Great Pyramids of Giza — were declared dead, researchers at the country’s Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems said.
A preliminary assessment for 2019 shows at least the same amount of damage.
German researchers and foresters have told NBC News the damage is the result of high temperatures and lack of rain drying out the trees, and in the case of the spruce, weakening its defenses against pests such as the bark beetle.
During a heat wave that hit much of Europe in July, Germany was one of several countries to break records, recording temperatures as high as 42.6 degrees Celsius (108.7 F).
WELZOW: Germany’s forests have long been treasured by its people, so the country has reacted with alarm and dismay as a beetle infestation has turned climate-stressed woodlands into brown ecological graveyards.
After two unusually hot summers in a row, vast patches of the forests mythologised by medieval fairytales, Goethe’s writings and Romantic painters have turned into tinder-dry dead zones.
Given the scale of the threat to the one third of German territory covered by trees, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government convened a “national forest summit” on Wednesday.
There Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner pledged 800 million euros (about $880 million) in federal and state funds over four years to restore the 180,000 hectares of forest destroyed by drought and pests as well as storms and fires — the equivalent of 250,000 football pitches.
The chief culprit has been the tiny bark beetle, which has gone on a rampage as trees in water-starved habitats have lost their natural defences.
In vast parts of Germany, like Welzow forest 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Berlin, once healthy trees have become defoliated skeletons, their trunks marked by tell-tale networks of tiny tunnels.
“The insect eats the bark and lays eggs inside,” said forest ranger Arne Barkhausen. “The larvae then start to eat the trunk and block the nutrient pathways of the tree, which dies in about four weeks.”
Things are looking up in a swath of forest in southern Germany, thanks to innovative funding from the European Union for a project that aims to help policymakers better understand how the forest’s ecosystems work.
The ECOPOTENTIAL project uses satellite images for ecosystem modelling in 25 Protected Areas in Europe (as well as Kenya, the Caribbean and Israel) to address climate change and other threats to ecosystems. In the Bavarian forest, the images and mathematical models of ecosystems, or “Earth Observation tools”, are helping to assess the impact of climate change and pollution, and shape national protection policies.
UN Environment is one of many partners supporting the 2015-2019 ECOPOTENTIAL project, funded by the European Union to the tune of 16 million euros.
Within the ECOPOTENTIAL project, Earth Observation tools and “remote sensing”, including by aircraft and drones, are being used to better understand how vegetation is evolving across the park and over time.
Satellite and drone pictures are detecting patterns of dominant plant species, linking habitat characteristics with terrain, and tracking animal movements. The park administration is also carrying out intensive research on tree regeneration, the role of dead wood, and the impact of global warming and extreme climatic events on the future development of these ecosystems.