Endangered Ski Slopes in the Bavarian Alps: Snow Cannons against the Apocalypse

By Sebastian Knauer

Bavaria's ski resorts got a taste of the future over the Christmas holiday, when snow conditions made skiing all but impossible, except at higher altitudes. Alpine ski resorts are finding controversial ways to defend their business against climate change.

Two men in the best of spirits soar over Stümpfling mountain in Bavaria's Alpine foothills in an upholstered chair lift. They are Munich businessman Stefan Schörghuber and Erwin Huber, Bavaria's economics minister. Despite the relatively mild temperature at the mountain's 1504-meter (4,934-foot) summit, Schörghuber and Huber wear thick winter coats.

En route to the summit they pass a kidney-shaped reservoir with a capacity of 42,000 cubic meters (1,483,215 cubic feet). A pumping station carries the pure mountain water to a battery of 25 snowmaking machines, which will ensure a bountiful supply of manmade snow for the Stümpfling slopes.

That statement is more controversial than it sounds, because in Bavaria -- for ecological reasons, apart from simple pride -- making snow is taboo.

On this December afternoon, Schörghuber has invited Huber to help dedicate his new ski area above the Schliersee Lake, where hourly lift capacity has been increased from 1,700 to 4,800. Schörghuber is majority partner in "Alpenbahnen Spitzingsee GmbH," which has spent about €14 million on the renovation, which includes new snowmaking equipment, lodges and the cost of measures required to offset the resort's impact on the local environment.

Schörghuber's willingness to commit to such a substantial investment is surprising, given the outlook for winter sports in the German Alps. Skiers hoping for a decent snow this winter have been forced to find it at higher altitudes. Traditional winter towns like Lenggries and Bayrischzell reported miserable skiing and tobogganing conditions over the Christmas holiday.

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Even the most vocal naysayers among climate researchers assume that it will snow -- at some point in the new year. The heavy snowfalls of last winter, which had many homeowners worried about their roofs collapsing under the snow load, may return here and there. But the trend is decidedly not in favor of devoted Alpine skiers.

According to a study published at the start of this winter's ski season by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), global warming could jeopardize as many as two-thirds of all ski areas in the Alps. Bavarian ski resorts would suffer most under this worst-case scenario. At an average temperature increase of only 2°C (3.6 °F), 87 percent of slopes in the region would no longer be considered "snow safe." Within a few decades, skiing at altitudes below 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) will be impossible.

The OECD defines locations with an average snow cover of 30 centimeters (12 inches) for at least 100 days as "snow safe." About 600 ski areas in the Alps now qualify. An average temperature rise of 1°C (1.8°F) would reduce that number to 500, and each addition degree Celsius would eliminate another 100 ski areas. US climate expert Dr. Shardul Agrawala arrived at these dire predictions after crunching vast quantities of data on his computers. The last 15 years have already seen four of the warmest years (1994, 2000, 2002 and 2003) in the last 500 years.

"Praying to St. Peter isn't enough"

Investors like Schörghuber are of course familiar with the data on climate change. Aside from their tendency to remind critics that climate researchers are sometimes wrong, they've managed to adapt to new realities. At the Wallberg ski area at Tegernsee Lake (790 meters, 2,591 feet), Schörghuber had chairlifts and ski tows removed and installed a 6.5-kilometer (4-mile) toboggan run designed to attract tourists with a snow covering of as little as 10 centimeters (four inches). In fact, snow could even become a secondary element in Alpine tourism of the future. Schörghuber's company is increasingly emphasizing hiking, scenic beauty and spa attractions, or "a mix of summer and winter activities," as Schörghuber's spokesman Holger Lösch calls it.

The alternative is to make more snow. The winter sports industry has found a strong supporter of its cause in the Bavarian state government. Since 2004 the state parliament has relaxed restrictions on the operation of snowmaking equipment, leading to an almost 20 percent increase in slopes that depend primarily on manmade snow.

This has spurred new investment in Alpine resort areas like Hindelang and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which will spend about €100 million to improve its infrastructure to accommodate the 2011 World Ski Championships, and in the Spitzingsee region. Even the tremendous expense of water, energy and slope grooming machines, which increase the cost of each cubic meter of manmade snow by €3-5, are no deterrent. The estimated cost to operators is about €200,000 per kilometer of ski slope.

Minister Huber's tour of the renovated lifts and snowmakers on a moderately warm early winter afternoon had something manic about it -- as if he could slow down the steady march of climate change by his presence alone. "Unfortunately, praying to St. Peter isn't enough," says Huber. "What is called for now is courageous action. I am in favor of investment in snowmaking facilities."

Some people, of course, are not. Snowmaking is not only a huge expense of water; it also burns electricity. In light of global warming, Christine Markgraf of Bund Naturschutz, the German branch of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, has called for an immediate stop to what she calls Bavaria's "expansion mania." Green Party members of the Bavarian parliament complain about wasted state funds to promote snowmaking capabilities, saying that "snowmakers are not the way to stop climate change."

But Huber is more concerned about open opposition from fellow cabinet members. Werner Schnappauf, the state's minister of the environment, calls the upgrading of lower-altitude ski areas "economic and ecologic" nonsense and "the wrong investment for the future."

People like Schnappauf are gradually changing the mood on this mountain, where the locals' characterization of environmentally conscious climate researchers' predictions as "drivel" is becoming less prevalent. Customers have already responded to less favorable winter sports conditions. Peter Nagel, the tourism manager for the city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, sums up the current trend in a few words: "shorter stays, last-minute cancellations and non-skiing activities." "Nowadays," he says, "people check web cams on the Internet to see whether there has been fresh snowfall before heading to the slopes."

The trend looks unstoppable. Its consequences can be delayed, but only with the help of even more technology. One method resort operators have turned to involves the bacterium "Pseudomonas syringae." When killed and used as a crystallization core, the bacterium causes water to freeze into snow at temperatures as high as 5°C (41°F). Swiss villages in the Wallis and Berner Oberland regions have discovered that using the bacterium to make snow -- even at temperature above freezing -- gives them a true competitive edge.

Expert opinion is still divided on whether this biological wonder weapon will hurt the environment. Making snow with the bacterium is banned in Germany -- for now.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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