The Danube – September 10th, 2008
The Danube (In German: Donau from earlier Danuvius, Celtic *da-nu, meaning “to flow, run”, Slovak and Polish Dunaj, Hungarian Duna, Romanian Duna(rea, Old Norse Duná, Turkish Tuna, ancient Greek Istros, Croatian Dunav) is the longest river in the European Union and Europe’s second longest river after the Volga. It originates in the Black Forest in Germany as the much smaller Brigach and Breg rivers which join at the eponymously named German town Donaueschingen, after which it is known as the Danube and flows eastwards for a distance of some 2850 km (1771 miles), passing through several Central and Eastern European capitals, before emptying into the Black Sea via the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine.
Known to history as one of the long-standing frontiers of the Roman Empire, the river flows through — or forms a part of the borders of — ten countries: Germany (7.5%), Austria (10.3%), Slovakia (5.8%), Hungary (11.7%), Croatia (4.5%), Serbia (10.3%), Romania (28.9%), Bulgaria (5.2%), Moldova (1.7%), and Ukraine (3.8%).
In addition, the drainage basin includes parts of nine more countries: Italy (0.15%), Poland (0.09%), Switzerland (0.32%), Czech Republic (2.6%), Slovenia (2.2%), Bosnia and Herzegovina (4.8%), Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, and Albania (0.03%).
Although the headwaters of the Danube are relatively small today, geologically, the Danube is much older than the Rhine, with which its catchment area competes in today’s southern Germany. This has a few interesting geological complications. Since the Rhine is the only river rising in the Alps mountains which flows north towards the North Sea, an invisible line divides large parts of southern Germany, which is sometimes referred to as the European Watershed.
However, before the last ice age in the Pleistocene, the Rhine started at the southwestern tip of the Black Forest, while the waters from the Alps that today feed the Rhine were carried east by the so-called Urdonau (original Danube). Parts of this ancient river’s bed, which was much larger than today’s Danube, can still be seen in (now waterless) canyons in today’s landscape of the Swabian Alb. After the Upper Rhine valley had been eroded, most waters from the Alps changed their direction and began feeding the Rhine. Today’s upper Danube is but a meek reflection of the ancient one.
Since the Swabian Alb is largely shaped of porous limestone, and since the Rhine’s level is much lower than the Danube’s, today subsurface rivers carry much water from the Danube to the Rhine. On many days in the summer, when the Danube carries little water, it completely oozes away noisily into these underground channels at two locations in the Swabian Alp, which are referred to as the Donauversickerung (Danube Sink). Most of this water resurfaces only 12 km south at the Aachtopf, Germany’s wellspring with the highest flow, an average of 8500 litres per second, north of Lake Constance – thus feeding the Rhine. The European Water Divide thus in fact only applies for those waters that pass beyond this point, and only during the days of the year when the Danube carries enough water to survive the sink holes in the Donauversickerung.
Since this enormous amount of underground water erodes much of its surrounding limestone, it is estimated that the Danube upper course will one day disappear entirely in favor of the Rhine, an event called stream capturing.