Climate change in the harz mountains: sports without winter

After 49 years, the operator of the natural snow ski area on the Sonnenberg is giving up. Now the Harz region needs concepts for sustainable tourism.

No longer works: skiing in the Harz Photo: dpa

For winter sports fans, the weather forecast for the coming weekend in the Harz reads bleak: no snow, but rain and fresh gusts, five degrees above zero. At the moment, none of the 15 ski slopes are open, not a single meter of cross-country ski trail is groomed, and the winter hiking trails are not prepared. And that in mid-December, around the Wurmberg near Braunlage, the highest winter sports area in the highest mountain range in northern Germany.

At the beginning of the 2000s, not so long ago, a thick blanket of snow covered mountains and valleys in the Harz Mountains for months. In the highlands of the low mountain range, temperatures rarely rose above minus five degrees during this period. The ski season lasted from November to April.

Most recently, the winters turned out to be more and more frequent: No real frost, hardly any snow, at most the Brocken summit was covered in white for a longer period – but skiing is prohibited on the highest mountain in the Harz Mountains. Even on the slopes of the 971-meter-high Wurmberg, the first flakes fell very late in recent years. At least skiing was still possible there for a few weeks. For five years now, cable car operator Dirk Nusse has no longer relied solely on nature. He relies on artificial snow from snow cannons.

In recent years, the entrepreneur has invested around ten million euros in expanding the ski area on the Wurmberg. Two million euros were 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 spaces, and to set up around 100 snow cannons. Nine of the 15 ski and toboggan runs can thus be covered with snow.

On the Wurmberg, 16.5 hectares of forest were cleared

However, the snow cannons and lances along the slopes also need suitable conditions for the production of artificial snow, i.e. temperatures of zero degrees or below. Nusse is now even allowed to produce twice as much artificial snow and, to do so, to take 130,000 cubic meters of water from the reservoir at the Wurmberg summit, which is fed from the Warme Bode spring river, instead of the previous 66,000 cubic meters.

Nature conservation organizations had protested in vain against the extended permit granted by the district of Goslar. The Bund fur Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) argued that this was a considerable encroachment on a protected watercourse. In addition, the snow cannons are not a sustainable solution. If the slopes were snowed over one weekend, another wave of warmth would come the next Monday "and everything would be gone," environmentalists say. Artificial snow is a dead end, they say.

The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (Nabu) also points to other consequences for the environment: According to its data, a total of 16.5 hectares of forest were cleared at the Wurmberg for the ski area. Of this, 11.5 hectares were for the ski slope extensions, one hectare for the area for the reservoir and 3.5 hectares for the expansion of parking lots.

Environmentalists also want tourism

Millions invested and nature destroyed: So will skiing in the Harz Mountains only be possible under these conditions in the future? It almost seems so. With the exception of the Bocksberg near Hahnenklee, where eight snow cannons provide snow for the so-called family downhill run, some signs point to a farewell to winter sports.

After 49 years, the operator of the natural snow ski area on the Sonnenberg now gave up. "Thank you for your loyalty, for unforgettable moments, for wonderful incidents, for really great ski days and for incredibly nice conversations," Michael Sonderfeld said goodbye to his guests on the Internet. Whether the facilities will be permanently closed or sold has not yet been determined. Most recently, the tourism company of the town of Braunlage had made an offer to buy.

The municipality of Walkenried in the southern Harz region does not even want to invest in a new Bulli for tracking trails. The vehicle used so far is decrepit and could remain in the middle of the forest, it is said. If enough snow falls there at all, 50 potential cross-country ski trail kilometers would remain untracked.

Time travel to the 70s

"The Harz has a lot to offer, attracts thousands of guests and convinces with contemporary products," recently stated the Harz Tourism Association. "For some years now, new offers have been reliably developing, bringing places and facilities forward and ensuring sustainable tourism success for the region, which plays an important role not only as a soft image factor." But this is advertising euphemism. The reality looks different. Those who drive through the West Harz still take a trip back in time to the 1970s of the Federal Republic of Germany: the pubs decorated with roebuck antlers and pewter plates, hunter’s schnitzel on the menus, knickknacks in the shop windows.

Since reunification, the Westharz district of Goslar has lost more than a third of its visitors; in recent years, the trend has at least been halted. Because winter tourism, for decades the pillar of the business, collapsed in many places due to climate change, a rethink is slowly taking hold: Nature and culture are now being promoted more.

New themed hiking trails

The Harzklub, an association for the preservation of Harz customs, has begun to unbundle the hiking trails in the Harz 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. At present a multiplicity of over one another and next to one another put on confuses ways. A total of around 10,000 kilometers of hiking trails are being scrutinized and optimized.

In addition to classics such as the "Harzer-Hexen-Stieg" (Harz Witches’ Trail) and the "Goetheweg zum Brocken" (Goethe Trail to the Brocken), new themed hiking trails have been opened up: the "Steinway Trail" from Seesen to Wolfshagen, for example, which is equipped with numerous information panels, is a memorial to the legendary piano maker Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (1797-1871).

Culture in the monastery

This year, for the tenth time, six monasteries located in or on the edge of the Harz Mountains attracted visitors with a cultural program. The 2018 "Harz Monastery Summer" 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.

Environmentalists also want the Harz to boom in tourism. But they say there should be investment in sustainable, ecological tourism. Nature with its plants, animals, waters and forests is the real capital of the Harz. Those who squander it or destroy it with mega-projects like the one in Braunlage are destroying the foundations of tourism in the Harz.

Many tourist treasures are only insufficiently raised. Dozens of bathing lakes with crystal-clear water remain undiscovered because of a lack of infrastructure for guests. The system of ditches, canals and ponds built in the Middle Ages, known as the "Upper Harz Water Management System," has also been little advertised. After all, they were only declared a World Heritage Site in 2010.

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