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Research task 4: Changes in the hydrological system: Sediment budgets, morphology and adaptation options for inland waterways and navigation

Task Manager:
Dr-Ing. Thomas Maurer, BfG,
Tel. +49 (0) 261/1306-5242,

Dr Enno Nilson, BfG,
Tel. +49 (0) 261/1306-5325,


Advancing climate change may lead to more frequent and persistent extreme flow conditions in German rivers. This would affect particularly the free-flowing navigable inland waterways, the rivers Rhine, Elbe, Danube, and Oder - and thus also navigation. This research task will consist in an assessment of possible consequences for the waters and the shipping industry.

To this end, scenarios are developed that comprise the possible climate changes, the resulting changes in runoff, flow, sediment loads, and channel morphology. The purpose of this work is to estimate the span of possible future (critical) hydraulic/morphological conditions and the comparison with present-day conditions.
Moreover, the vulnerability of stakeholders against changed hydraulic/morphological conditions is determined. Such stakeholders are - first of all - inland navigation, transhipping industries, and the German Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration that is responsible for the operation, maintenance, and development of the waterways in the ownership of the Federal government.

Finally, options in capital investment or operation modes are derived and analysed. These may be measures in hydro-engineering, water-resources management, innovative aids to navigation, adaptation in the structure of the merchant fleet, and transfer of freight to other modes of transport.

Methods are being developed to be applied exemplarily at the rivers Rhine, Elbe, and Danube. The results achieved under this research task provide the basis for a following national economic balance-study of costs and benefits, from which a strategy for action may be derived by political decision-makers.

Work packages

  • Projects 4.01 and 4.02: Development of a method to derive a family of scenarios for climate variables (especially precipitation and classes of weather situations), streamflow (especially low-flow), sediment-transport rates, and river-bed developments until the year 2100. A tiered process will be applied to project a large number of scenarios by means of models into the future by running chains of emission scenarios, hydrological models, and a hydromorphological model. The output will be a value of the span of extreme low and high water levels and of a modified sediment transport.
  • Project 4.03: Bottlenecks in the fairway of the River Rhine will be identified and options of reducing the width of the fairway by several constructive and regulating measures will be checked at several test reaches in order to make navigation possible even under more extreme low-flow conditions than those known today. The range of options for action reaches from optimised dredging strategies to mobile groynes or temporary impoundments.
  • Project 4.04: As a supplement to Project 4.03 operational adaptation measures will be developed. The aim is to optimise navigation at low flow with improved aids to navigation. So-called routing techniques and ship-traffic simulations are employed to study different ship types, improved steering-gear, various traffic situations and densities. The result will be the minimum-necessary fairway width ("fairway within the fairway" for the safety and ease of navigation.
  • Project 4.05: Process studies consider processes of ice formation on waterways and a model of ice formation on free-flowing inland waterways will be developed to serve as a basis of an ice-forecasting model on the River Elbe.

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