(Updated 3:08 p.m. EDT) -- River cruise lines are monitoring the Rhine as a record-breaking heatwave continues to sweep across Europe and create "unusually low" water levels -- an issue that began back in July and is only worsening as the summer progresses.
On August 5, authorities reported that water levels on the river have fallen to just 56 centimetres (22 inches) -- so low that cargo ships plying the Rhine are being forced to sail nearly empty just to avoid running aground. To date, all cruises are continuing to operate as normal -- in what is the first full sailing season following the COVID-19 pandemic -- but lines are making plans to alter itineraries if needed.
Water levels are currently lowest near the popular port of Koblenz, Germany.
In the past, when low water has prevented the river cruise ships from sailing from place to place, the cruise lines transfer passengers to different ships along the way and continuing to operate shore excursions as normal.
The 820-mile Rhine, which flows through six countries, shares the top spot with the Danube as the most popular waterway for river cruising. The current issues are affecting the German stretch of the Rhine. Germany's Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG), the scientific institution responsible for the country's waterways in federal ownership, warns that water levels are continuing to fall.
"Drought and high temperatures are straining Middle Europe's water balance," BfG said in a statement. "In many cases water yields in rivers are rather unusually low for July. As a consequence, navigation is facing increasing obstacles. While fairway depths are reduced at some stretches, Germany's complete waterway network is still navigable. The upcoming week is expected to see further drops in water levels."
CroisiEurope, the largest European-based river cruise operator, said all of its Rhine ships were operating and had not been impacted by the water levels, although the line would continue to watch the situation closely.
"Bigger ships with bigger drafts are affected more," said Michel Grimm, the line's international sales director. "CroisiEurope's ships have a small draft and ballast which means they are able to cope with lower water levels."
"The nature of rivers is that they ebb and flow with the seasons, and we will make adjustments as necessary with current low water levels caused by the staggering summer heat," said Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld.
"Our guests are always our first priority, and we continuously monitor water levels along all of our routes and proactively share updates to our impacted guests and travel partners when available. While we may have to make adjustments to our daily itineraries, guests can be assured that we will still be operating and providing the 5-star Uniworld experience that they know and expect."
A-ROSA River Cruises also said it had contingency plans in place should they be needed.
"It is not uncommon for water levels to fluctuate during the summer months. A-ROSA is monitoring the current developments on the Rhine closely and is in constant dialogue with the port authorities and respective water management offices," said Lucia Rowe, managing director UK & Ireland. "If the need arises, often only small adjustments to an itinerary are required to allow the cruise to continue."
In a statement the Scenic Group, which includes Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours and Emerald Cruises, said: "Due to the ongoing record high temperatures across Europe, some stretches of river in areas we sail are experiencing low water levels. As river conditions can change relatively quickly, and to ensure as little disruption as possible to our guests' experience, we are closely monitoring the situation and proactively planning to revise the routes of some cruises.
"Where possible, we will ensure the ports of call are not impacted by these changes, and our team are working hard to find the best possible solution for each individual cruise."
A spokesperson for Tauck said: "As always, we're closely monitoring water levels on the Rhine. Right now we're operating normally on the river. Until there's an actual closure it's impossible to say precisely which ships and departures will be impacted, what those impacts might be, and how we'll respond.
"That said, our goal is to always do right by our guests, while doing all that we can to preserve their travel experience. We've dealt successfully with low-water situations in the past, and we have a variety of strategies that we can deploy as necessary. We're very fortunate that we also operate numerous land tours throughout the region, so we have a fantastic network of local supplier-partners that we can leverage as necessary should alternate arrangements become necessary."
AmaWaterways said that all of our river cruise ships are cruising as scheduled. "With 20 years of experience, we have successfully managed previous low water situations to minimise the impact on our guests' river cruise experience," the line said in a statement.
"From an operational point of view, our ships have been purposely designed with the lowest draft possible which, along with our experienced captains and crew, allows us to continue cruising during low water conditions. Safety remains our top priority and our experienced teams have alternative plans in place should the local authorities temporarily curtail or halt river traffic on any portions of the rivers we sail. These plans may include alternative ports of call, modified shore excursions as well as ship swaps, if necessary. As the water levels on the rivers can change quickly, we have a dedicated communications team in place to alert our guests and valued travel agents of any modifications affecting their upcoming river cruise holidays and assist with any changes that may be required."