They say seeing is believing, but at Germany’s imaginative and revealing climate change museum, they believe experience is even better. That’s the driving force behind the immersive installations offered by the Klimahaus (Climate House) and its main exhibit, “The Journey,” that transports visitors around the world along one line of longitude, eight degrees east.
Opened in June 2009 in the northern German port city of Bremerhaven, the UNESCO-sponsored museum is the first of its kind. The journey exhibit takes people through a range of the world’s climate zones: mountain glaciers, scorching desert, muggy rainforest and onwards around the globe in an effort to show what climate change means across the planet.
Along the way we meet the people who live in each zone and find out how their lives and worlds are changing due to global warming, be it in Switzerland, Sardinia or Niger. Many of the people we meet through photos, videos, audio and inspired installations are already living in the extremes, but everywhere the journey takes us we see that climate change is inescapable and is a reality people, animals and plants are living.
Picture it: starting in the middle of unassuming Bremerhaven we head due south on train tracks, first stop Switzerland and the Alps. There we learn about the rural traditions of an elderly couple who milk cows and make cheese in a mountain village. Why not have a seat and milk one yourself, it’s easy.
Or climb to the top of the scaled-down glacier and learn about whooping, the fun and lesser-known cousin of yodelling.
But we also learn how things are changing: glaciers in the region are receding quickly, leaving behind massive debris freed from the melting ice and creating major risk of rockslide, a product of climbing temperatures and a world consuming more fossil fuels than ever. You’ll even feel the temperature of a glacier in a passage on the way to the next stop, Sardinia.
The family that awaits you on the Italian island lives with extreme heat. Parts of Sardinia, off Italy’s southwestern coast, suffer from high temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius regularly and dryness that makes forests prone to wild fires. No one works from one to four in the afternoon as the oppressive heat makes it simply impractical.
Working with the premise that a butterfly in one part of the world can cause a tornado in another, we control weather settings in one room and watch the effects on camera as visitors in nearby rooms feel a brisk breeze, a sudden rise in temperature or a downpour next to the old Fiat.
Climate change in Sardinia has only exacerbated the problem of forest fires, which we see helicopter pilots lament in a video as they fly over an infernal landscape. But they also say that education and public engagement has led to better management of the forests and a recent reduction in the number of fires annually.
Further south along the 8th degree line we come to a place on the edge of the desert, though it’s hard to believe you’re not in the Sahara itself. Kanak is a remote region in Niger and is home to the Tuareg, nomads who have been herders in the region for 1300 years. They live on the northern edge of the Sahel, a band of terrain that crosses Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Conditions there are difficult to bear. After peering into the daily lives of Tuareg families we enter a desert-like room where a single acacia tree stands on a stretch of barren, sandy land. Here, water is at a premium from wells 30 metres deep and desertification is making life harder each year. That reality is brought home by the room’s 35-degree dry heat wave and the single drop of water falling on the tree every twelve minutes, simulating the amount of precipitation the region receives annually.
A quote from a Tuareg woman on the wall leading into the room speaks volumes: “When I was a young woman a lot of things were different. I saw things I no longer see. I don’t see any of those things anymore: giraffes, ostriches, tortoises, antelopes, deer. There were enough.”
From Niger the journey continues southward to the rainforests of Cameroon, Antarctica, the Pacific island nation of Samoa and up towards Alaska and before returning to northern Germany. But even to this point the message is clear: climates around the world are changing and the Klimahaus makes those seemingly distant consequences strikingly real.
Please read the conclusion of the Klimahaus journey featuring a climate refugee art exhibit and a closer look at Germany’s renewable energy efforts.
* Photos by Tomas Urbina and Malika Pannek