Running for climate: ‘Marathon is a metaphor for the climate crisis’

Climate expert Tim ran the Jungfrau marathon in Switzerland with a team of ten other climate scientists on Saturday, 9 September, as a positive way to raise awareness for the urgent need to address the climate crisis. Their message was clear: It’s not too late to run for climate.

If you follow the Rhine from the glacier all the way to the North Sea in the Netherlands, what effects of climate change can you see in and around the river? And what possible solutions are there? Nine questions for climate expert Tim van Hattum.

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Why start with one of the toughest marathons in the world?

I am delighted that we had a positive and enthusiastic team for the marathon. This marathon, in the middle of the Alps, immediately reveals one of the impacts of climate change that we can also feel in the Netherlands, the river’s ‘final destination’. Glaciers are melting at increasing speed, affecting freshwater availability, water quality and biodiversity. The marathon is a metaphor for the climate crisis: a steep course, obstacles, having to give it all you have, sacrifice and a sense of urgency. The longer we take, the steeper and more challenging the course becomes. But, to stick with the metaphor, the result is worthwhile in both cases: a completed marathon and a inhabitable planet for everyone.

The key message is that it is not too late to act. If we deploy natural solutions in addition to technological solutions on a large scale, we can prevent significant damage. Many natural solutions are readily available. A global radical systems change is needed to avoid irreversible damage. But we must act fast.

The marathon was held in a climate-sensitive glacier region, not entirely coincidentally. What consequences will we face if more ice melts?

We know that half of the world’s glaciers will have disappeared by 2100 if global warming stays at 1.5 degrees. And that is with the most favourable climate scenario. If we continue as we are now, with the international agreements set at 2.7 degrees, 70% will disappear, with enormous impacts on the water supply (drinking water and irrigation) for 2 billion people living downstream from glaciers.

Added to this is the negative impact on biodiversity and human welfare as a result of lengthy dry spells and floods.

Do you see a top-3 for the impacts on freshwater?

The Rhine springs from the Alps. If you were to follow a drop from the source to the river mouth in the North Sea, you would see all manner of climate change impacts along the way. European glaciers are disappearing in Europe at an alarming rate, impacting the water levels in the Rhine, which in turn affects the shipping industry and drinking water supply. According to the KNMI, glaciers in the Alps have never before melted as fast as in the summer of 2022. Not something to be proud of.

The second consequence is that water availability in the spring and summer will become scarcer in the long run. And that is precisely when the farming sector needs water to produce food. This imperils our food security.

And finally, we also depend on other countries located upstream. If they decide to construct dams to retain water, the agricultural sector and the nature of countries downstream suffer serious adverse effects. Hence, a long-term European perspective for each eco-region is essential. On 20 September, we presented Europe 2120 in Brussels, a sketch to serve as an inspiration to underscore the importance of nature-based solutions for Europe’s future.

Giving the river room also gives room to the nature surrounding the river.
Giving the river room also gives room to the nature surrounding the river.

Weather extremes increase the risk of flooding. How do we keep the riverbanks dry?

In periods of heavy precipitation, the Rhine must carry enormous volumes of water in one go. In the Netherlands, we are accustomed to technological solutions such as fortifying or increasing the height of dykes, or blocking the water through sluices such as the Delta Works. Wageningen’s vision 'NL2120, a natural future', shows what the Netherlands could look like one hundred years into the future. In this perspective, rivers are given more room. There are already excellent examples in the Netherlands of this approach, but it should be implemented on a much larger scale. Solutions often lie in a combination of technological and natural interventions. And, to be honest, this should not be done only in the Netherlands but in all of the Rhine’s river basin. The success lies in considering the system as a whole and taking a long-term approach. We want to do what we have done for the Netherlands for Europe as well.

We moeten zorgen dat we water gaan vasthouden, benutten, bergen en afvoeren. In plaats van andersom, zoals we nu doen.
We moeten zorgen dat we water gaan vasthouden, benutten, bergen en afvoeren. In plaats van andersom, zoals we nu doen.

Drought poses a risk to nature. How do we ensure nature gets the water it needs when it needs it?

By using nature reserves as natural climate buffers. Landscapes must be designed naturally, and solutions must be nature-based. Nature can be used to retain water. The land around rivers and estuaries is often used for farming. Farmers want soils that are dry but just moist enough to produce food. The water is drained as soon as possible using ditches and drainage systems. But this causes valuable water to be wasted. Water can be retained by blocking ditches and creating natural buffers. The potential resulting floods and soggy soils are excellent for nature and biodiversity. Recovering arable land and restoring its fertility increases its water retention capacity. A natural solution is to retain water where it falls, use and store it (in wetlands, for example), and reserve drainage only for substantial quantities of water. We currently do the exact opposite by draining water as soon as possible. That causes entire regions to become desiccated.

Draining water causes entire regions to become desiccated.
Draining water causes entire regions to become desiccated.

Is arable land suitable for retaining water?

There is much discussion about soil as a buffer to retain water. Our farmlands are not just exhausted by continuously draining water but also by our efforts to produce as much food as possible with the help of artificial fertilisers and pest control substances. We keep our arable land ‘alive’ with all manner of subterfuges while adding organic substances to the soil (such as leaving crop residues behind in the field after harvesting) forms a buffering measure. Healthy soil has much better buffering capacity in cases of heavy downpours. It is also better at storing carbon, which benefits the climate.

Wageningen researchers focus on climate-smart agriculture and regenerative agriculture, to provide the world population with sufficient healthy food in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Rapidly melting glaciers will affect river patterns. Drainage should no longer be the first priority. Added measures such as drones that map the soil humidity or how much water crops require or smart irrigation may be considered, but everything starts with healthy soil.

Cities want to expand, but the best spots for construction – high and dry, with little flooding risk- have already been taken.
Cities want to expand, but the best spots for construction – high and dry, with little flooding risk- have already been taken.

Can urban areas continue to expand along the river?

Climate change and higher river outputs have fueled the discussion on urbanisation along rivers. Cities want to expand, but the best spots for construction – high and dry, with little flooding risk- have already been taken. We are increasingly descending towards less suitable spots. The government wants to construct 40,000 homes in the Arnhem-Nijmegen region, for example, where the Rhine enters the Netherlands. Our Wageningen perspective 'Arnhem 2120 - this is how a Dutch city may look in 100 years;' we debate this decision. The river delta is a valuable ecosystem that must be fortified and used for a natural design. Room for the river is at odds with plans for construction. This will be a critical discussion in the coming years.

What effect does climate change have on nature in and around the river?

Nature in and around the river is currently not doing well. Farming in the flood plains, poor water quality, pollution and limitations to ecological areas through dykes, dams and sluices have all contributed to the river’s waning ecological quality.

The river forms a connection, an ecological corridor, which must be designed more naturally over its full length. Giving the river more room results in a larger and more diverse natural area, both in the river and around it. At the end of the river, near the Haringvliet sluices, the ecologically valuable transition from freshwater to saline water should be restored. When we look at the source of the river, the Eiger glacier in the Alps, we see that recent research shows new, valuable ecosystems emerge under the receding glaciers. Positive in itself, but since these new habitats for plants and animals are not yet protected, this merits attention.

How will rising sea levels impact the river?

Rising sea levels cause river deltas to change, which impacts biodiversity, the shipping industry, flood risks and the availability of fresh water. How these mechanisms influence each other is a research topic at WUR, as well as how more sustainable waterways may be designed.

The most valuable and diverse nature is often found on gradients where the saline and freshwater meet. These gradients have disappeared due to unnatural barriers such as the Delta Works. Whether or not we should completely redesign our coast if sea levels rise is up for debate. Deltares has devised several scenarios (seaward building, adaptation and protecting the coast). Wageningen calls for adaptation, as is central to our NL2120 vision. Allowing seawater to enter will result in a slight increase in salination and boost nature. But at the same time, it poses a threat to our drinking water supply and agriculture. This discussion will also have to be tackled in the coming decades, and all the pros and cons must be carefully considered.

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