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forests and climate change

The dimensions of damage in Europe’s forests

Article by Holzkurier (translated by Eva Guzely) | 01.07.2020 - 15:27
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damaged wood in Central Europe 2017 - 2019; 2019: Holzkurier estimate

Based on the course of previous calamities, published forecasts and numerous expert discussions, Holzkurier’s editorial team assumes that the peak is reached in 2019-2021. Even if one supposes that the calamity is slowly subsiding, another 500 million m³ of damaged wood would accumulate in the coming five years, and thus a volume of nearly 750 million m³ over a period of ten years. 

Volumes of wood in Germany in 2019

Official data put the volume of damaged wood in Germany at 135 million m³ in the years from 2015 to 2019. The German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture expects 55 million m³ of damaged wood this year. Adding the storm damage of last winter, the volume is going to reach at least 60 to 65 million m³ in 2020 – and would thus be below last year’s level (around 70 million m³ of damaged wood).

More positive news came from the Ministry of Agriculture: “In 2020, the expected percentage of damaged softwood is considerably lower than last year (2019: 63.7 million m³)”.

Despite the big “iron population”, Holzkurier’s editorial team expects that the peak of the bark beetle calamity was reached in 2019/20. If there is not another “summer of the century” like the one of 2018, the volumes of damaged wood should decrease from this year on.

Harvest volumes could fall from the current 70 million m³ a year to a normal level which is well below this figure. The five-year average of 2011-2015 was 54 million m³ a year.

If this rather optimistic forecast comes true, the volume of damaged wood still amounts to 240 million m³ in the years from 2020 to 2024, and thus to 375 million m³ over a period of ten years. Contrary to the Czech Republic, relatively little dead log wood has remained in German forests so far.

German exporters managed to create a “pressure relief valve” by shipping log wood to China in containers. In Germany, exports rocketed from 200,000 m³ in 2018 to 3.8 million m³ in 2019. In relative terms, the Czech Republic was even more successful with 2.3 million m³ (+1255%). Together, these two countries provided 14% of the Chinese log wood demand. Austria only exported 3,000 m³ to China in 2019 (all data by China Customs Statistics).

Distribution of damaged wood in Germany in 2019

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© Holzkurier

Baden-Württemberg reported 6.3 million m³ of damaged wood in 2019 (+36% year on year), Bavaria recorded 9.8 million m³ (+53%) and Thuringia reported 5.3 million m³ (+64%).

According to a reply of the German Ministry of Agriculture to an inquiry by the Green Party, the biggest relative increases in damaged wood were recorded in Brandenburg (7 million m³; 2018: 400,000 m³; +570%), Rhineland-Palatinate (2.6 million m³; 2018: 1 million m³; +255%) and North Rhine-Westphalia (14.5 million m³; 2018: 4.5 million m³; +69%).

This year’s figures on damaged wood refer to data provided by the states at the end of September 2019. Accordingly, a total of 70 million m³ of damaged wood accumulated in Germany.

From “zero” to over 3 million m³

Softwood log exports to China rocketed by 725% compared to 2018 to slightly more than 3 million m³. Every month, exports to the Asian country saw steady increases. In October, more than 460,000 m³ were shipped to China. At the end of the year, however, exports recorded a marked decrease.

Clear all

Clear all

The situation in the Czech Republic

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© Zprávy lesnického výzkumu

The Czech Republic has seen the earliest and biggest change in climate. Since the beginning of the 1990s, summer rainfalls have halved in Moravia. The record summer of 2018 created the perfect conditions for four generations of bark beetles. In 2019, two generations were observed, and there are supposed to be only two generations in 2020 as well. 

Spruce is suffering the most from summer droughts and heat. Last year, 31 million m³ of damaged wood are assumed to have been harvested in the Czech Republic which exceeds regular harvest (30 million m³). Holzkurier’s editorial team expects a further increase in damaged wood this year (42 million m³). The think tank Czech Forest even predicts a volume of 50 million m³ in 2020.

According to a shared assessment, the peak should be reached in 2021. Holzkurier fears that 56 million m³ might accumulate, while Czech Forest expects a volume of 80 to 120 million m³.

From 2021 onwards, the calamity should subside – among other things because spruce is going to vanish in many lower-lying areas and in particularly dry regions. Since 2018, there has been a decrease in spruce stocks in the Czech Republic. The head of the Czech State Forests, Josef Vojacek, puts it at already -16%, in relation to the most recent forest inventory (see article “Lesy CR fears a harvest of 15 million m³ this year”).

According to available statistics, the volume of damaged wood amounted to 75 million m³ in the years from 2015 to 2019. Based on Holzkurier’s projections, another 210 million m³ are to be expected from 2020 to 2024. This would mean a halving of the current 400 million m³ of spruce stocks.

Austria in 2019

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Overall logging separated into damaged wood and regular logging; green: normal logging, red: bark beetle, blu: storms, snow etc, © BMNT, LKÖ

Between the years of 2015 and 2019, the volume of damaged wood amounted to 41 million m³ in Austria. In 2019, around 12 million m³ were recorded – a level which could be reached again this year. 2020 is an extreme mast year which is weakening trees. A dry winter was followed by an equally dry spring – until the first noteworthy rainfalls started in the bark beetle hotspots. Past calamities show that the beetle population in forests is probably still going to be big in 2021.

Based on available information, Holzkurier’s editorial team expects a marked decrease only after next year.

If these forecasts come true, another 48 million m³ of damaged wood are going to accumulate in the five-year period of 2020-2024. The percentage of damaged wood would slowly fall from currently two thirds of regular annual harvest to below 50%. 

“Five very good years“

Excerpt from the article “Five very good years” (2018 balance sheet analysis of Austria’s seven biggest sawmills):

  • Austria’s four biggest timber companies all made considerable acquisitions abroad (Binderholz took over Klenk Holz in 2017, Hasslacher bought Nordlam, Mayr-Melnhof Holz took over Hüttemann, and Pfeifer Holz bought Chanovice.)
  • The leader in losses (€ -126 million) became the leader in profits (€ +221 million): Mayr-Melnhof Holz.
  • In terms of sales, Binderholz is the new Croesus in Austria: In 2018, the company’s sales amounted to € 1 billion (+171% compared to 2013).
  • The equity ratio of the seven biggest sawmills rose from 35% in 2013 to 47% last year. (In absolute terms, equity more than doubled from € 451 million to € 942 million.)
  • Sales increased from € 1.8 billion in 2013 to € 3.2 billion in 2019.
  • In 2013, companies spent around € 1.2 billion on the material, i.e. mostly log wood. Five years later, € 1.7 billion were spent.

New construction revival – identifying “claims”

In this phase of accumulation of damaged wood, the Central European sawmill industry is reacting differently than the North American one during the “pine beetle” catastrophe. Sawmill capacities are raised, and new sawmills are to be built. Nine projects are confirmed, with Mercer Timber expressing its interest in building a new sawmill already in 2018 (see article “Mercer: We are ‘here to stay’”). As soon as these expansions or new constructions are completed, they will need around 9 million m³ a year (+5.2 million m³/year).

Of the three analyzed countries, the Czech Republic has the lowest sawmill capacity. In 2018, the country’s softwood sawn timber production amounted to about 4.4 million m³, compared to 10 million m³ in Austria or 23 million m³ in Germany. Labe Wood in Steti was the only new sawmill which went into operation this year. At full capacity, this sawmill is probably going to need one million m³ a year (see article “New big sawmill started up”). This is going to raise cutting capacity to around 12 million m³ a year.

After a decade of “investment jam”, several expansion and modernization projects are to be started in Austria in the coming years (see article “The future has begun”). Leoben, Preding and Kundl have to be mentioned in this context. In Summerau, Handlos is going to build a sawmill with an annual capacity of 120,000 m³ per shift. This is the first new construction in a long time.

The joint sawmill Gelo/Bullinger in Wunsiedel as well as Best Wood Schneider’s sawmill in Meßkirch are new constructions in Germany which are to go into operation in 2020/21. New Linck lines are started up in Oberrot (end of 2020) and Wilburgstetten (2021).

Mercer Timber’s new sawmill in the wider area of Stendal has been announced but is still in the project phase. It would not be surprising if at least one more big sawmill was to be added to the German sawmill landscape.

Gelo Timber is the first sawmill which has been adapted specifically to the cutting of log wood of smaller diameters. The accumulation of damaged wood has brought thinner log wood to processing companies. In the medium term, the changes in the composition of forests which are to be expected in light of the new climatic conditions (reduction in the rotation period, more space for tree crowns etc.) are also going to result in the increasing availability of thinner log wood.

Sawmill projects in Germany, Czech Republic and Austria | 2020–2023
Company so far in future Description
Best Wood Schneider, Messkirchen/DE 350 three-shift operation
Gelo Timber, Wunsiedel/DE 350 see article "Schwachholz-Sägewerk für Leimholz"
Handlos, Summerau/AT 240 two-shift operation
Hasslacher, Preding/AT 275 1,000 in future 500,000 m³ in a one-shift operation
Klenk Holz, Oberrot/DE 934 1,100 Holzkurier estimate
Labe Wood, Štětí/CZ 1,000 three-shift operation
Mayr-Melnhof, Leoben/AT 1,350 1,350 target 2020 to be upheld
Mercer Timber, Stendal/DE 1,000 only announced
Pfeifer Holz, Kundl/AT 600 800 Holzkurier estimate
Rettenmeier, Wilburgstetten/DE 500 1,700 see article "Neue 1,2 Mio. fm-Sägewerkslinie"
Total 3,659 8,990  

Buyer or seller market?

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Development of log and sawn timber prices in Austria (1/2001 = 100%); red: sawn timber, blue: log wood; Source: Austrian Timber Industry Association © Holzkurier

For sawmills, buying log wood corresponds to around 70 to 80% of overall costs. If the log price falls, this immediately has enormous economic effects.

At least since 2018, sawn timber and log prices have decoupled in favor of sawmills. Up to that year, German and Austrian sawmills complained about having “the highest log prices in the world”.

Since that year, Central European sawmills have suddenly become much more competitive on many markets. Germany’s considerable exports to the US are mainly due to the raw material price.

It has always existed? No!

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storm Gudrun © Gerd Ebner

There are some who say that situations like the current one have always existed. Unfortunately, this is completely wrong. At the moment, the conditions for healthy forests are changing due to climate change. This leads to a calamity whose dimension or end are impossible to predict at the moment. What has always existed, are storms. Storm events are catastrophic on a local level, but mostly limited in their impact and always manageable (see table).

For at least five years, the Central European forestry and timber industry has been struggling with the accumulation of damaged wood. Caused mainly by droughts in summer and, as a result, by bark beetle infestation, around 250 million m³ accumulated in the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany alone. According to official figures, Germany recorded 135 million m³ of damaged wood. In the Czech Republic, 75 million m³ accumulated between 2015 and 2019 and in Austria 41 million m³ were recorded. 

Windthrow events | 1990 to today
The biggest windthrow volumes in Europe (more than 1 million m³ of damaged wood)
Year Name Country Damage
1999 Lothar FR, DE, CH 180 million m³
1990 Vivian, Wiebke Central Europe 100 million m³
2005 Erwin, Gudrun Scandinavia, Baltic states 85 million m³
2007 Kyrill, Olli Central Europe 55 million m³
2009 Klaus FR 40 million m³
2018 Friederike DE 17 million m³
2007 Per SE 12 million m³
2018 Vaia IT 11.5 million m³
2008 Emma AT, DE, CZ 9.5 million m³
2017 Hartmut   AT, CZ, PL 8.8 million m³
2005 Silvio SK 8 million m³
2013 Ivar DK, SE 7.2 million m³
2008 Paula AT 6.3 million m³
2002 Uschi AT, CZ 6 million m³
2011 Dagmar FI, SE 5 million m³
2017 Herwart   Central Europe 5 million m³
2019 Eberhard, Franz
DE, CZ 4 million m³
2014 Petra AT, IT, SI 3.8 million m³
2015 Helga, Gorm SE 3.3 million m³
2014 Yvette AT, CZ 3.1 million m³
2015 Niklas AT, DE 2.9 million m³
2017 Kolle   AT, DE 2.5 million m³
2017 Yves AT, SI 2.5 million m³
2018 Burglind   AT, CH, DE 2 million m³
2013 Xaver DE, DK, SE 1.9 million m³
2013 Eino FI 1.5 million m³
2015 nameless FI 1.5 million m³
2017 Xavier   DE 1.4 million m³
2008 Annette SE 1.2 million m³
2013 Christian DE, DK 1.1 million m³
2013 Seija FI 1 million m³

Why is spruce most affected?

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symbolic image © Martina Nöstler

In Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, spruce is the most widespread tree species (e.g. Germany: 25%), which is why it is also the most affected. Spruce is the dominant type of tree because it grows in a wide range of areas (Germany: “from the Zugspitze to Rügen”), has the fastest growth and ideal strength characteristics for constructive purposes.

All of these characteristics lead to the following developments:

  • Spruce can often be found in areas outside its natural habitat.
  • Often, planting material which is not suitable (reforestation after WWII) was used and
  • the wrong forestry strategies (trees planted too closely to each other) were adopted.
© RL Martin Schönsgibl/ÖBf
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© Timber-Online

If global temperatures rise by 2°C, as is expected by climate researchers and European politics (Paris climate agreement), spruce will not be the main species in forests at altitudes of under 600 meters anymore. In special locations, such as wetter valleys and northern slopes, spruce might grow under this mark. Here, Germany will again be hit particularly hard, since almost 70% of all spruce trees, i.e. 805 million m³, grow at altitudes of under 600 meters.

Outlook is similarly bleak for the Czech Republic which has a growing stock of around 700 million m³, 60% of which are spruce trees. In a very pessimistic statement, the Czech environment minister predicted that “there won’t be any spruce trees anymore in 15 years”.

Austria has a little advantage thanks to its topography. In the country, “only” 16% of spruce stocks, i.e. 100 million m³, are located at altitudes of under 600 meters. The majority of spruce stocks, almost 590 million m³, grow at higher altitudes. “Many of our forests are located in mountainous areas. So far, we had a disadvantage of 10 €/m³ due to a more costly harvest and transport. With climate change, however, this could actually be an advantage,” comments Dr. Rudolf Freidhager, head of ÖBf.

Climate change – what does it mean for forests?

  • What does a seemingly small increase in temperature mean? A comparison: There is a temperature difference of only 0.5° C between the red wine region Burgenland and the white wine region Kamptal (average annual temperature).
  • The Austrian forestry sector expects +4° C (planning until 2100).
  • 1° C corresponds to 160 meters of altitude, 4° C correspond to 640 meters of altitude (vegetation from currently 400 meters to 1000 meters of altitude).
  • Distribution of precipitations/extreme temperatures: “We will have a climate which we have never seen before,” predicts Prof. Dr. Andreas Bolte of Thünen Institute.
  • Vaia (2018) and heavy rain event in November 2019: change in Jetstream winds; weakening of the Gulf Stream

Decrease in spruce growing areas

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© Timber-Online

The graphics do not mean that in 2100, there will only be spruce trees in the Alpine regions of Austria. However, in order to have sufficient coniferous trees growing at lower altitudes in the coming decades, it is important to put an end to the mistakes of the past first. For example, more tree species improve the chances of having vital trees in the future as well. The species have to be appropriate to the location.

When creating new forests, the usually high number of trees is probably going to be reduced. The past has shown that trees need space. Cultivation is thus going to be done on much smaller areas of land.

All of this is obsolete unless hunting practices change considerably. Fir and oak trees, for example, are real alternatives in the Czech damaged wood hotspots. However, without a massive reduction of the stock of game, no plant is going to survive.

Possible countermeasures

Avoid the mistakes of the past:

Forest owners are going to learn from the mistakes of the past. In the future, newly created forests are going to have a much lower number of trees. The planting material has to consist of the most vital and suitable tree species and provenances.

Species which are an alternative to spruce are only going to have a chance of surviving if hunting practices are changed accordingly.

Forestry is going to have to take place on much smaller areas in the future. The past years have shown that trees need more space. Furthermore, the importance of a closed stock for its inside climate has to be taken into account as well.

Other possibilities

So far, too little use has been made of the best choice of provenances when changing the composition of forests.

Successful breeding is extremely time-consuming when it comes to trees. Therefore, a lot of patience is needed (period of time: 2, 3 generations, 10-25 years each).

As to spruce, the rotation period is going to be drastically reduced to 25 to 50 years (from the current 80 or more years).

Ultima ratio:

As a last resort, there is probably going to be a “sponsored migration” (e.g. firs from Greece). There will be a need for new mixes of tree species and probably also the planting of non-domestic tree species.