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from: Anna Laura Mueller

For the white realms of winter, you have to go higher than Garmisch-Partenkirchen these days. © Gallery / Imago

With no snow in the lower ski areas, the question of whether winter sports tourism has a future becomes even more urgent.

White trails run through green slopes. Where there was snow a few weeks ago, only a thin strip can be skied on now. This is the current situation in many of the lower ski areas in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Even for technically generated snow, it’s currently too warm to be generated in many places. After the winter sports season got off to a dreamy start in December thanks to the cooler temperatures, it came to an abrupt end at the end of the year at the latest.

The situation in the high altitude ski area, such as in Sölden in Austria, is fundamentally different from the situation in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria or the North Hessian ski area in Willingen. Especially in parts of the Bavarian Alps and in the lower German mountain ranges, green is now predominant instead of white. Skis and snowboards should be replaced with hiking boots there.

The reason for this: excessively high temperatures. According to the German Weather Service (DWD), after the first cold weeks of December, there was a “180-degree turn” on December 19. The black ice was followed by mild temperatures across the country. December was generally very warm, and January also had very mild temperatures for this time of year, says DWD’s Gudrun Muhlbacher. And while the so-called Christmas thaw is not unusual, it was so warm in southern Germany during this time that snow at higher altitudes in the Bavarian Alps also melted. Although there will be years in the future where there will be plenty of snow left, the trend toward less reliable snow at lower elevations will continue, according to Mulbacher.

Rising temperatures caused by climate change are putting winter sports tourism under pressure, but the focus is also shifting to the energy consumption of holidaying on the slopes. Thomas Frey of the Bund Naturschutz describes arrival and departure as a major problem: about 75 percent of Alpine tourism’s carbon dioxide emissions come from traffic. Alpine skiing in the Bavarian Alps relies heavily on day tourism. “People come from Munich, Augsburg, Ulm and Stuttgart to go up the mountain for a day,” says Frey. “This is where skiing actually becomes a motorsport.” Everyone who wants to spend a vacation in the Bavarian Alps is advised to stay less, but for a longer period of time.

Steffen Reich of the German Alpine Club (DAV) also advocates for “a reasonable balance between travel distance and length of stay” in ski holidays. DAV sees a problem primarily in expanding ski areas. The increasingly large reservoirs of technical snowmaking areas and the ever-expanded ski areas are putting a strain on the Alpine landscape. “The main point of our criticism is that this growth spiral has not yet been broken. Ski areas still think they have to get bigger and bigger.” DAV is not fundamentally against making artificial snow, but it does see some expansions as being quite significant.

However, the Bund Naturschutz is very critical of the use of technically produced snow. This would preserve the image, Fry says, which is no longer real in reality. Instead, you have to free yourself from the expectation of snowfall during your winter vacation. Growing reservoirs are also a great intervention in landscaping. The water used for this purpose, which comes from streams, is richer in nutrients than rain water or dew water from natural snow. This can lead to fertilization of the meadowsweet.

Winter sports tourism has not only relied on technical aid-based infrastructure since the advent of snowmaking systems. According to Robert Gross, an Austrian environmental historian, efforts have been made to reduce reliance on snow reliability since the 1950s. Initially, the trails were prepared using relatively simple methods so that the snow that fell naturally would become more resistant to warm periods. What began manually with skis and rollers was done mechanically in the mid-1960s with the help of snowcats, Gross describes: “This pressure causes cold pockets to form, which means the snow cover melts more slowly.” In the 1990s, there was a jump in development with the use of snow making systems. The environmental historian asserts that this technical component has always been a part of skiing, whether in Bavaria, Austria or the USA. The infrastructure that makes winter holidays in the mountains possible for the masses is closely related to the improvement of drag lifts and cable cars. Governor Frey fears that the nature experience will fall by the wayside in the big commercial ski areas. The more you use the infrastructure, the less you will “experience the real nature” of skiing. According to Frey, a lot of capital has been invested in the elevator infrastructure. Capacity has been continually increased so that when snow conditions are adequate, several people can be pushed up the mountain in the shortest possible time.

Historically, there has always been a certain ambivalence in winter tourism for the general public, says Robert Gross. This results from the fact that early Alpine nature acted as a display for a romantic attachment to one’s homeland. This picture of pristine nature is then contrasted with the highly technical ski infrastructure. Rich in infrastructure, winter tourism strives to make the process as efficient and profitable as possible.

The environmental historian finds it difficult to find that this infrastructure is still based on the general conditions of the 1950s and 1960s – in terms of weather, temperature, snowfall and snow cover. However, in the context of climate change, society is transitioning to a state that is fundamentally different from the conditions of the ecological framework in the past. “What we’re seeing now with snowmaking systems, terrain structures, and snowmaking ponds can certainly be interpreted as an attempt to delay meteorological development a bit,” Gross describes. But this would only work up to a point.

It cannot be said in general terms when this point will be reached. One thing is clear: lower elevations are affected the most. According to Gudrun Mühlbacher of DWD, the situation there always depends on local conditions. This means that snow cover on a northern slope melts more slowly than on a southern slope at the same elevation.

In a position paper submitted by the “Klima.Schnee.Sport” forum from 2021, forecasts can be deduced at least for the future of winter sports regions. The publication, “Snow Sports Perspectives in Light of Global Climate Change,” which emerged from the meeting of transboundary experts, states that “despite planned measures to protect the global climate, the average annual temperature in the Alps and lower mountain ranges will increase by at least two degrees Celsius. Specialists: Within the Forum research institutions draw a clear conclusion for winter sports from this scenario: “Natural snow cover, suitable for snow sports, will continue to decline in the long term, especially up to medium altitudes in the Alps and in lower mountain ranges.” Experts assume that the duration of snow cover and the structural conditions for technical snow production will be reduced. According to Muhlbacher, who is participating in the forum, it must be assumed that there will be no snow in the future every year in areas below 1,500 meters.

Climate change will sooner or later force operators of ski areas at lower elevations to look for alternatives. Axel Müller rents a small ski area in Suhl in the Thuringian Forest. At 890 metres, the mountain terminus of the slope he operates in the Schmiedfeld am Rensteig is well below the 1,500-metre limit. “We accept the situation as it is,” Mueller says. “Operators, who want to maintain tourism supply in the low mountain ranges in the long term, have been focusing on summer tourism for the past 10 years or more.” At present, the process still needs wintering works a lot. The goal, however, is to expand offerings for the summer and offer a balanced ratio of winter and summer operations.

Antonia Asenstorfer of the German Cable Car and Traction Association explains that they are mainly used to deal with the vagaries of the weather. Of course, one wished the comic book winter had lasted longer, but the winter for many cable cars and drag lifts will last until mid-April. In general, German cable cars run mainly throughout the year. “We transport about 50 percent of our guests in the summer,” says Asenstorfer.

At lower elevations in the lower mountain ranges and the Bavarian Alps, the trend has long moved away from winter sports towards year-round tourism. But if snow reliability continues to decline in these areas in the future, this will have an impact on other ski areas as well. According to Frey, the technical snowmaking costs and energy costs of the lift operation are likely to increase at higher altitudes, as snow is still guaranteed in the future, and with them the prices for winter sports enthusiasts. He is sure that skiing will not remain a team sport.

Environmental historian Robert Gross notes, “The pervasive skiing phenomenon is no longer there today, and eventually, there will be a global elite who can even afford it.”