German Ski Resorts Suffer a Snowless Winter

Winter has come late to the Alps this year, cancelling major ski races. Some studies point to this winter being Europe's warmest in 1,300 years. Is it climate change at work? Resort owners in Germany say they will weather this season, but aren't sure what to do about long-term problems.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Andrea Seabrook. All the runways at Denver's airport should be open today, but thousands of holiday travelers remain stranded. While too much snow was the hitch in Denver, Germany has the opposite problem, a severe lack of snow, particularly at lower elevation ski areas. This has forced major races to cancel and resorts to turn snow-making machines on full blast when they can. From Bavaria, Germany, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: Garmish-Partenkirschen is a small town at the edge of Germany's highest mountain. Skiing is big business here. As head of marketing for the company that runs the lifts, Klaus Shonda(ph) says he's seen winters like this come and go.

Mr. KLAUS SHONDA (Garmish-Partenkirschen): Like 12 years ago we had a winter like this. Like seven years ago we had a winter like this, and then we start skiing in January; it's normal for us.

HARRIS: Climate researchers say there's enough variability in history that single weather events, like little snow one year, can't be directly pinned to global warming. But as a guy who grew up here and loves to ski, Shonda says knowing that world temperatures are creeping up drives him nuts.

Mr. SHONDA: Even if we stop right now with all the cars and with all the damages we do, we can't stop this development. That makes me crazy as a private person.

HARRIS: The immediate question for Garmish is how to get snow. The immediate answer is make it.

(Sound of snowmaking machine)

HARRIS: At the top of a brand new, 12 million dollar lift, snow making machines blow clouds of frozen water into the sunshine. There's enough white stuff that some of the runs up here are now open. But snowmaking is only a partial solution. Some visitors, like American Scott Mollett(ph) say real snow is better.

Mr. SCOTT MOLLETT (Visitor): Because artificial is just, it's like skiing on ice. You know, it gets icy and there's chunks. And it's a lot easier on the powder.

HARRIS: And over the long term, a new study predicts it will get too warm at ski resorts below about 5,000 feet in the Alps for snowmaking to consistently work. University of Innsbrook's Robert Steiger(ph) co-authored that study. It has to be at least three degrees below freezing to make snow, he says, and it take five days to cover a slope. He says those limits might be tweaked with chemical additives or improved equipment.

Mr. ROBERT STEIGER (University of Innsbrook): That means you buy more snow guns, you build bigger snow making ponds, and of course you can produce snow at lower elevations but for a very high price, of course.

HARRIS: At some resorts in this area, most slopes are covered by fake snow. But Garmish has a secret weapon, the highest mountain in Germany. Up here at 2,962 meters, you can see the mountains of Austria, Italy and Switzerland. They do have snow. There's a full service restaurant up here, and just a little bit lower on the mountain, a ski area built on a glacier.

(Soundbite of cable car)

HARRIS: You travel up and down by cog wheel train or cable car, great for non-skiing tourists. Although the snow up here is real, the glacier is melting. It's noticeable in the summer and there's a debate at the resort whether it's worth putting snow machines up here too. One thing that makes it hard for ski resorts to know how to respond to climate change is the timeframe. Resort managers and tourism officials say they think 15 or 20 years ahead. The warnings of routine warm winters at low lying ski resorts project 50 years out. But some higher places may get more snow by then, says climatologist Reinhardt Boone(ph).

Mr. RHEINHART BOONE (Climatologist): The question is not whether global snow cover is more or less in the future, but in one specific valley, in one specific (unintelligible) in which altitude we will have snow or no snow.

HARRIS: Faced with uncertainty, ski areas are trying to develop other fun for winter visitors. In Garmish-Partenkirschen there is plenty on offer.

(Soundbite of singing)

HARRIS: An evening of music in a local church.

(Soundbite of pounding)

HARRIS: Mold wine, fresh from the tap.

(Soundbite of water)

HARRIS: The sports complex has five indoor pools, and though sleighs are still in storage, there are horse-drawn wagon rides.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: For anything to do with snow, there aren't long lines. Courtney Nester(ph) is renting skis to try out tele-marking. She came here for Christmas even knowing there's been little snow.

Ms. COURTNEY NESTER (Tourist): There's a few nice hiking places too that we've done here, so we figure if the snow's no good when we get up there, then we'll just go hiking.

HARRIS: If Garmish doesn't get snow for Christmas, visitors with that kind of flexible attitude are next on the wish list here. Emily Harris, NPR News, Garmish-Partenkirschen, Germany.

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