16 Aug 2011

Everyone’s talking about the weather we just carry on transporting!

16.08.2011. Today the official reading at the Kaub measuring point is 188 cm. This water level is still satisfactory and allows for a draft of more than 2.70 metres. However, it also means that our dispatchers, and above all our tireless Shipping Manager Heleen Scharroo, have to organise the barges according to tonnage rather than TEU volumes.

This problem with low water levels has been going on since the middle of March. During the whole month of April and half of May there was no rainfall at all. The level of Lake Constance again approached historic lows.

When, at the beginning of May, the water level reading at Kaub fell for a short time below the 80 cm mark, things looked quite critical. In April Contargo had already switched to its programme for exceptional circumstances das and had arranged for additional rail transport (foreseen in case of extreme low water) between Ludwigshafen and Duisburg. At the same time, the Basel Multimodal Express (BME) and the Wörth Multimodal Express (WME) supported the barge transports by taking additional tonnage. In this way it was possible for all boxes to reach their destinations – not least because you, as our customers and partners, helped to shoulder the considerable additional costs via the extreme low water surcharge.

We would like to take this opportunity to emphasize that – unlike the situation with high water levels, where virtually all shipping is banned when Flood Mark II is reached – navigation on the Rhine does not stop altogether when water levels are extremely low (“Kleinwasser”). It just gets much more expensive. Theoretically, we are even allowed to sail if water level readings at Kaub are below 40 cm – but vessels would hardly be able to carry any load at all.

Will these difficult weather conditions for inland navigation continue during the rest of 2011? Were the last few months another exception, like 2003, 2005 and 2009? Or will climate change now present us every year with a dry spring and an even drier summer?

No-one can yet provide an answer to this, and there are as many different opinions and expertises as there are different measuring points along the Rhine. The hydrology research group at the Institute of Geography of the University of Bern has ascertained that in the last 150 years there have been 14 years with springs as warm and dry as 2011.

Other scenarios project a distinct warming of Switzerland over the coming years up to 2050, causing the small and medium sized glaciers to melt completely. Up to the end of the projection period this would lead to more water in the Rhine rather than less.

Another forecast foresees that climate change will lead to a more even distribution of water conditions over the whole year, and will have the effect of evening-out the difference between average flow volumes in the summer and winter half-years.

Quite a few voices predicted that this year we would have to reckon with very low water levels throughout the summer and through to the beginning of December. – Fortunately this has not been the case, and we are hoping for a normal water year in the second half of this year.

Regardless of all predictions, there will always be dry years and wet years with a lot of snow in winter – as there have been since weather records began 150 years ago. At Contargo we will adapt to these conditions and take the necessary steps to provide the transport reliability our customers expect. At the same time, we should not forget that combined transport is the transportation form which can best contribute to enabling the European Union to achieve its climate protection goals. This positive effect is not just good for navigation after 2050. It concerns us all.

With this in mind, we wish you a great summer – with plenty of rain!


Heinrich Kerstgens               Thomas Löffler


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