Climate change in the harz: ski and toboggan badly

The Harz mountains will probably have to say goodbye to winter sports. Instead, tourism experts are focusing on culture, nature and the lessons of dead wood in the nature park.

Lack of snow at the Wurmberg in the Upper Harz in January 2020 Photo: Karlstedt/imago

No snow, but rain and gusty wind from the southwest, 7 degrees above zero. In Braunlage, in the highest winter sports area of the Harz, the conditions for ski fans are bleak.

Skiing and tobogganing poor or impossible, respectively: this also applies to Schierke, Hahnenklee, the Sonnenberg or Bad Sachsa. None of the downhill slopes in the low mountain range is open, not one meter of cross-country ski trail is groomed, and the lifts are at a standstill, according to the Harz Tourism Association. And that’s at the beginning of January, in the middle of winter. The prospects? Bleak. At most next weekend, according to the German Weather Service, there could be a little snow in the highlands of the Harz.

As recently as the early 2000s, not so long ago, a thick blanket of snow covered mountains and even valleys there for months. Temperatures rarely rose above -5 degrees during this period. The ski season lasted from November to April.

But lately, winters turned out to be more and more frequent. Even on the slopes of the 971-meter-high Wurmberg near Braunlage, the first flakes fell very late in recent years. At least there, skiing was still possible for a few weeks. This is because the cable car operator has no longer relied solely on nature for six years. He relies on artificial snow from snow cannons.

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The company has invested around 10 million euros in the expansion of this ski area in recent years. 2 million was provided by the state of Lower Saxony. The money was used, among other things, to build new slopes and lifts, to cut down countless trees for the construction of parking lots, and to install around 100 snow cannons. Nine slopes can be covered with snow.

Too warm for snow cannons

Theoretically. Because the snow cannons and lances along the slopes also need suitable conditions for the production of artificial snow, i.e. temperatures around 0 degrees or below. After all, it was already possible to do a bit of tobogganing at the Wurmberg at the beginning of the year. When the thermometer dropped to 3 degrees plus for a few days, employees of the cable car company switched on the snow cannons at the toboggan run.

Not a single meter of trail for cross-country skiers is groomed, and the lifts are at a standstill.

In addition: The artificial snow production is ecologically extremely questionable. Snow cannons are not a sustainable solution, argues the Bund fur Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND). If the slopes were snowed over one weekend, there would be another heat wave the next Monday "and everything would be gone."

The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (Nabu) recently pointed to other consequences for the environment: According to its data, a total of 16.5 hectares of forest were cleared for the expansion of the ski area. Of this, 11.5 hectares were for the ski slope extensions, 1 hectare for the area for the reservoir from which the water for the snow cannons is taken, and 3.5 hectares for the expansion of parking lots.

Millions invested and nature destroyed: So will skiing in the Harz Mountains only be possible under these conditions in the future? Except on the Bocksberg near Hahnenklee, where eight snow cannons can make snow on the so-called family downhill run, and in the Hohegeib ski center, where a mobile snow-making system is soon to be purchased, some signs point to a farewell to winter sports.

After 50 years, the operator of the natural snow ski area on the Sonnenberg gave up in 2018. Last winter, the municipality of Walkenried in the southern Harz region didn’t even want to invest in a new van for tracking trails. The vehicle used so far was decrepit and could have been left in the middle of the forest, they said.

Now the focus is on hiking

Because winter tourism, for decades the pillar of the business, is collapsing due to climate change, tourism strategists are rethinking their approach: Nature and culture are now being promoted more. The Harz Club has begun to unbundle the hiking trails and make them clearer. The offer is to become clearer for guests and the moving in the low mountain range more attractive, communicated the association.

In addition, new themed hiking trails have been developed alongside classics such as the "Harzer Hexen-Stieg" and the "Goetheweg zum Brocken". The "Harzer Klostersommer" 2019 featured more than 50 concerts, guided tours, festivals and other events. The "Mordsharz" crime fiction festival entered its seventh season with a good dozen readings, some of which took place in mines or other "spooky" locations. Currently, the "Harzer Kulturwinter" (Harz Cultural Winter) is attracting visitors to monasteries and other old walls with theater, concerts and candlelight tours.

The climate crisis itself is also expected to stimulate tourism. At the Harz Tourism Day in the fall, the campaign "The Forest Calls!" was presented. Instead of concealing from vacationers the state of the forests, which have been massively damaged by storms and bark beetles, travelers to the Harz region are to be prepared beforehand on the Internet, with flyers and in brochures as to what sight awaits them.

One example: In the Harz National Park, which at around 250 square kilometers covers about 10 percent of the mountain range’s total area, fallen and dead trees are often not removed. What may be an unusual sight for some visitors makes sense from an ecological point of view, says national park spokesman Friedhart Knolle. The deadwood remains in the forest and thus provides food and shelter for numerous animals and plants.

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