BUND also warns that if developments are not stopped, then all of Germany will be facing “deforestation and thus desertification and karstification.” For Germans who strolled in supposedly healthy forests last summer, this is certainly difficult to imagine.
In rural areas, journalists sometimes still dismiss “the horror scenario of the terrifying acid steppe” as “sheer nonsense” (Jesteburg-Hanstedter Zeitung in Lower Saxony). The early stages of forest dieback cannot be perceived by laypeople, and the catastrophe does not become a political issue until, after a years-long incubation period, the damage is irreparable. This adds to the treachery and tragedy of a new form of environmental threat.
“In the 1960s,” says Social Democrat [Freimut] Duve, “we were concerned with environmental pollution, such as the garbage in the forests that you could see and deal with.” But now politicians are increasingly confronted with cases of hidden environmental contamination, and it is overwhelming them.
The toxins affecting forests throughout central Europe are invisible; in many places, they have caused the level of acidity in rain to increase a hundredfold within twenty years. Toxins released from the burning of fossil fuels in power plants and cars can even contaminate areas far from industry, especially when super-high chimneys transport them into zones of constant wind.
Presently, there are 186 substances that are suspected of causing forest dieback, including fluoride, nitrogen oxide, heavy metals, hydrochloric acid, and especially sulfur dioxide (SO2). Every year, 3.5 million tons of SO2 (the main toxin in quantitative terms) rises from West German chimneys; this is enough to fill 130,000 freight cars and translates into nearly 50 kilograms per resident. The highest SO2 concentrations are measured northeast of industrial centers, corresponding to the main direction of the wind.
The first phase of damage that toxic rain – sometimes as acidic as vinegar – causes to roots and foliage can only be seen under a microscope. Metals such as aluminum that are released into the acidified forest floor drive out necessary bacteria and damage the fine root system that supports and nourishes the tree. At the same time, (dry or wet) acid rain attacks trees’ leaves or needles and disrupts the process of photosynthesis, whereby plants convert light, water, and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.