Dry weather sinks Swiss water levels

Seagulls circle above a drained-looking Lake Constance Keystone

High temperatures and meagre precipitation have resulted in some exceptionally low water levels for this time of year.

This content was published on April 13, 2011 - 07:41
Susan Vogel-Misicka,

While Tuesday’s light rain was quite welcome in many parts of the country, the authorities say it would take days of non-stop downpours to make up for the deficit of rain in recent weeks and months.

According to a report by the Swiss Federal Environment Office, the levels of the lakes in Biel, Murten and Neuchâtel are far lower than they should be for April. Lake Biel, for example, is about 40 centimetres shallower than normal, and ten centimetres lower than it was at its previous all-time low for an April 3rd, which was recorded in 1993.

Groundwater levels and spring discharges in the Jura and the Swiss midlands are also lower than usual for April. This past winter was mild, with far less snowfall and rain than is typical – plus a lot more sunshine. In early April, Switzerland basked in surprisingly warm weather.

“The temperatures have been really extraordinary – especially in canton Ticino, where it was over 30 degrees,” said Swiss TV meteorologist Christine Jutz.

As unusual as the weather has been, the drought is not considered a serious problem.

“From a hydrological standpoint, the situation isn’t critical yet,” said Edith Oosenbrug, a spokeswoman for the Federal Environment Office’s hydrology department. As she told, “any implications for plants and animals depend on further developments over the next weeks.”

While the levels of some Swiss lakes are quite low, others – such as those of lakes Thun and Brienz in the Bernese Oberland – are slightly higher on account of rapidly melting snow in the Alps.

Burning hot

The summery weather during the first two weekends of April inspired many people to fire up the barbecue. Swiss parks and forests often feature specially equipped public grill areas for roasting sausages and other treats.

Yet the tinder-dry conditions recently sparked outdoor fire bans throughout canton Ticino and in parts of cantons Graubünden and Valais. The Federal Environment Office has also urged people to take extra care even when there are no bans in effect.

In a suburb of Lucerne, a fire broke out on Sunday evening and destroyed a 2,000-square-metre patch of moorland. Two dozen fire fighters were summoned to extinguish the fire.

“If it hadn’t been so dry lately, then the area wouldn’t have gone up in flames. There were a fair amount of reeds – which were also quite dry – and so they caught fire quite easily,” Lucerne Police spokesman Urs Wigger told The police suspect that the fire was caused by somebody who was careless while smoking nearby.

Dry row to hoe

The weather conditions have also had an impact on agricultural activities in Switzerland.

“For example, freshly sown sugar beet fields might not germinate, which means farmers might have to sow them again,” Swiss Farmers Association spokeswoman Sandra Helfenstein told

She pointed out that vegetable plants might also need extra watering – an added expense – and that pasture grasses were growing slowly despite the recent warmth.

“Ideally we’d get two or three rainy days followed by more sunshine,” Helfenstein said.

However, from a farming perspective there are some advantages to dry weather. Relatively dry soil is easier to plough and harrow, leaving less pressure damage behind. Wet weather, on the other hand, can encourage the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases – some of which are particularly bad for fruit trees.

“And of course, the farmers prefer working when the weather is nice!” added Helfenstein.

A super summer?

The cold front that replaced the early taste of summer is likely to bring more wet weather, but not much in the next few days. According to the Environment Office, some individual rainstorms would be helpful for the growth of vegetation and the short-term prevention of forest fires.

It would take several days of non-stop downpours to thoroughly replenish the low water levels, but these are not in the forecast for this week.

“Based on the current conditions, it’s too early to make predictions for the summer – including the water temperatures. With a change of weather featuring prolonged rainfall, the situation could look completely different in a few weeks,” said Oosenbrug.

If you believe Böögg, the Zurich snowman figure who got blown up during Monday’s Sechseläuten festival, Switzerland can look forward to a super summer. The faster his head explodes, the better the summer will be, according to tradition.

The Böögg’s head exploded in just under 11 minutes – well under the 14-minute average.

drought sparks fire bans

Outdoor fires have been banned in parts of southern Switzerland as several weeks of drought have left the ground and undergrowth tinder-dry.

The Environment Office issued a warning in early April about the dangers of fires in general, and called for people to take care even in areas where the local authorities have not issued specific instructions.

Barbecues are popular among the Swiss and specially equipped outdoor grill areas are to be found in many forests.   
The Swiss weather service, Meteo Swiss, says that parts of cantons Valais and Graubünden have had less than 20 per cent of their normal rainfall in the last two months, while other areas further north and west have received only about one third.
The southern canton of Ticino has banned all outdoor fires, while its neighbour Graubünden has banned them in and near woods.The authorities in Valais say they, too, face a strong fire risk in some parts.
The Environment Office says that where the risk is highest, it will only be dispelled by heavy rainstorms. Brief showers or thunderstorms will not be enough.

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