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Inches above the sea

Halligen, Wadden Sea, Germany

People have been living just above sea level for hundreds of years in the Wadden Sea. Despite their long history, settlements on a group of small German islands called the “Halligen”, located off the North Frisian North Sea coast, are now threatened by the climate crisis. This unique ecosystem of salty marshes depends on regular flooding from the sea. Almost 300 hundred people and over 60,000 coastal birds call Halligen home.

Islanders are used to the ebb and flow of regular flooding and have adapted accordingly. Matthias Krämer is a church minister who has lived on Hallig Langeness for 25 years. He explains that people have built their houses on little hills known as “Warften” to protect themselves from rising waters.

Langeness can be flooded 20-30 times a year, even in summer, but especially in autumn and spring. Then the whole island is under water, only the houses on the hills look out.

© Claudi Nir / WWF

Flooding is critical to the continued existance of this special place. The North Sea portion of the Wadden Sea is protected by three national parks and listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Flooding brings in important salt and sediments for the marshes. Over the years, islands have slowly gained in height with the gradual accumulation of sediments. But a rapidly changing climate and rising sea levels due to increasing melt from the polar regions means the flooding is getting higher and more frequent, making it difficult for locals to adjust.

I am convinced that it will probably be very difficult for small children here who are now in kindergarten to grow old on Hooge.
- Michael Klisch, deputy mayor of the community of Hallig Hooge.

Michael said a major flood several years ago made everyone in the area very concerned. “The storm flood in 2013 has led to the thought that something must happen on the Hallig. The population of the Hallig wants something to happen. They are scared whether we still have enough time or if the sea level rise will be so fast, that adaptation measures won’t be enough.”

© Claudi Nir

Adaptation won't be enough

The government is helping islanders prepare for the rising sea levels by strengthening the hills on which their homes stand by protecting the shore line, but Michael admits it won’t be enough. “It’s important that we are not only adapting to climate change but are also trying to stop climate change and sea-level rise from continuing. Wanting to achieve the 2 degrees target is not enough, it has to happen now!”

Ironically, constant flooding that brings in new sediments to renew the Hallig ecosystem is the only way to ensure the Halligen can withstand man-made climate change and sea-level rise in the long run and adapt to the rising ocean. But that also means the people who call this place home may have to leave. “I won't live up to 2100, but if nothing has changed until then, then the Hallig would be almost constantly flooded,” said Matthias. “Then of course you can't live here anymore.”

What WWF is doing

Adapting to change
WWF is committed to helping the unique ecosystem and villages of the “Halligen” adapt to climate crisis. We are proposing future adaptation measures like steerable sluice gates to enhance salt water influence and sediment deposition as well as nature-based shore line protection to reconnect Hallig salt marshes with the surrounding Wadden Sea tidal flats.
Climate action
Adaptation measures play an important role in increasing resilience against the climate crisis. Nevertheless, if we want to save the Halligen and other affected communities and regions, governments must take real measures to meet climate goals set out under the Paris Agreement. To achieve this, Germany must adopt climate protection measures like the rapid phase-out of coal, expansion of renewable energies, and plan for greenhouse gas neutrality.