In Berlin – a reminder of Acid Rain


Bullet holes, Neues Museum, Berlin. Photo by Warren Kovach.

The bullet holes in the walls of Berlin are being filled in but they are still very visible.  Residents live with the human history and tragedy around every corner of this beautiful and healing city.  World War 2 divided the city and defined its recent history until The Wall came down.  An encounter with the statue of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, statesman, writer and scientist, in the Tiergarten made me think about the environmental history of the city.

Goethe Monument, Berlin. Photo by Warren Kovach.

Goethe Monument, Berlin. Photo by Warren Kovach.

Acid Rain was the high profile international environmental crisis of the last century.  It was caused by fossil fuel pollution.  Emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, largely from power plants and cars, lead to the formation of acid in the atmosphere.  In many ways Berlin would have been at the centre of the story surrounded by the heavy industry of East German and the growing international political interest in Europe and the Soviet Union.

Scandinavian scientists were the first to make the link between fishery loss and the long-distance transport of atmospheric acidic compounds.  However German scientists demonstrated the damage caused to forestry.  The trees in The Black Forest were dying.  The international scale was further exemplified by the conclusion that the majority of the upland waters in the UK were acidified, with changes in lake and river ecosystems, but convincing evidence of biological recovery is now emerging.

There were also environmental impacts from Acid Rain in urban environments, especially for buildings and statues made of calcareous material, such as limestone and marble.  Facades and statue faces started to crumble across Europe.  Precious objects, like the statue of Goethe, were moved to places of safety.

Political analysts are still debating the definitive reasons behind the eventual agreement of the international Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention which lead to the successful reduction of the acid-forming pollutants.  In the end it proved to be more about European scientific consensus and political unification than division, and this merits study in a climate change context.  No doubt Goethe with his interest in nature and political connections would have been a contributor to the debate but unfortunately he was displaced by time.

The statue of Goethe in Berlin was not returned to its original location until the air pollution was reduced to acceptable levels in the 1990s, and years of careful restoration were required to clean and repair it.  Now the great man looks down and reminds us that human politics and the environment are closely connected.

“In Nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it. “  Goethe.