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Europe's heatwave is wreaking havoc in Germany

Beach-goers wait to access a beach in Berlin on August 4. Photo/Getty Images

Eight German states say the heatwave in Europe has cost them close to $5.2 billion in damage.

The weather: it’s what polite Britons talk about when they want to avoid other, more controversial subjects. But recently, the straight-talking Germans, who are not half as sensitive to controversy, have also been fixated on the weather. Over the past month or so, temperature, rainfall and humidity levels have become a national obsession.

In Berlin, city dwellers are happy if they get a week or two of sunshine any given summer. After three nice days in a row in July, the neighbours will joke that the German summer is now officially over. Not this year, though. This year, “the sunshine has become a threat”, as one newspaper headline put it. Europe has been beset by a heatwave, and at times over the past month, it’s been hotter in Berlin than in Italy or Greece. The city – dirty, dusty, sweaty – feels different: exotic, unwashed and somehow more relaxed as the heat forces residents to disrobe and take afternoon naps. The dry sidewalks smell like pee, the grass in the parks is brown, queues outside public swimming pools are hours long and good citizens water thirsty municipal trees outside their apartment buildings.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The heatwave brought its share of First World problems. Germany almost ran out of beer bottles, jellyfish prevented swimming at some Baltic Sea beaches and ice cream burglary became a thing. People started playing reggae again, and while the rich bought desk fans (that quickly sold out), the poor sweated it out. When the temperature hit 37°C, journalists at the central-city newspaper I work at stayed in their home offices, and some wrote stories about how weekend escapes to the mountains were trendy again.

But there were also more-serious issues: farmers lost as much as half of their crops, lake and river levels dropped to record lows, railway tracks bent and highways buckled.

Compared with other European nations, Germany got away relatively lightly. Still, eight German states say the heatwave cost them close to $5.2 billion in damage. Over 30°C, there’s a 10% rise in deaths and 5% rise in hospital admissions.

It feels so strange. In New Zealand, we tend to keep an eye on the weather. It’s all that “four seasons in one day” stuff that could either interfere with our shopping or kill us if we’re out in the bush. New Zealand lives closer to nature. But in Berlin, in the middle of continental Europe, you generally don’t worry about that. If there’s rain, you catch the subway. If it’s minus 15°C, you put on your coat and trundle from well-warmed apartment to cosy cafe. But this kind of heat, well, Berlin just can’t cope.

It’s unsettling, apocalyptic even. One of Germany’s most popular talk shows asked guests, including the Minister for Agriculture, how locals should change their behaviour. A TV documentary about weather drew around 4.35 million viewers; everyone wanted to know what was going on, why and when it would stop.

It feels like we’re on the cusp of some historic realisation, current affairs magazine Der Spiegel suggested ominously. “Is this summer the final, irrefutable proof that the planet is heating up?” it asked.

In the end, after talking to various local climatologists, nobody was sure how to answer the question, concluding that, although there’s no denying overall global warming, a long hot summer, a shortage of beer bottles and an excess of reggae do not an environmental disaster make.

But we can be sure of one thing this dry European summer – slowly, but surely, the weather is no longer a subject just for polite conversation.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.