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Warm Weather Leaves Skiers High and Dry

The German ski industry has hit a bump this year, as record warm temperatures for January melted snow at the country's many lower-lying resorts.

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Will Germans have to cross borders and go higher for snow?

If the unseasonable weather keeps up, this January will turn out to be the warmest ever in Germany, with temperatures around six degrees higher than normal, according to Riek Schaab of the German Weather Service in Offenbach.

For an explanation, scientists point to global warming. Overall, the earth has warmed about one degree celsius over the past 100 years.

No winter?

Mojib Latif, a climatologist at the Leibniz Institute for Marine Studies in Kiel, Germany, told the newspaper Die Welt he thinks Germany will only get warmer: "According to our climate models, in 2100 there will be 50 fewer days of frost in Germany. We'll have practically no winter at all."

Skimarathon

A ski marathon in Switzerland, 2004

But what sounds like a dream to those who don't like the chilly northern European climate is a nightmare for the ski-tourism industry – especially in Germany.

Compared to Switzerland, Austria or France, Germany has more smaller, low-lying resort areas that tend to have invested less in modern updates, like snow-making machines and lifts, over the past decade.

'Big losers'

"Winter sports resorts in low-lying areas and in the northern area of the Alps are going to be the big losers," Wolfgang Seiler, a meteorologist with the Meteorology and Climate Research Center in Karlsruhe, told the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger newspaper.

Wintersportler genießen die Sonne

Winter athletes enjoy the snow and at Chiemgau in southern Germany

Seiler agreed with researchers who say they expect global temperatures to rise overall by one degree celsius by 2035, albeit with enormous regional differences. In the Alps, Seiler said temperatures could rise between two and three degrees celsius, especially in winter. That means the snow line -- the altitude at which snow stays on the ground -- would rise from around 1,000 meters to 1,500 meters.

Need for snow

If that climate change were to come about, then an annual snowfall would no longer be certain in the vast majority of German ski resorts. Only the highest resorts within Germany's borders, like Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Berchtesgaden and Oberstdorf, could do business as usual.

Kaiserwetter

Sitting in the sun at a Bavaria ski resort

Nearly 50 percent of the ski resorts in the German Alps could be affected, researchers say. They note that half of the 1,500 ski lifts in Germany lie beneath 1,000 meters.

Rising temperatures aren't the only problem, however. Skiers need snow, but precipitation in the month of January -- the height of ski season -- is expected to drop one-fifth by 2035, Seiler told the Stadt Anzeiger. Precipitation is expected to increase by one-third in March and April, however. Then, the snow that does fall will come increasingly in the form of storms, which would increase the likelihood of avalanches.

Should they occur, such climate changes would deal a near-deadly blow to the lower lying resorts, which rely heavily on ski season revenues.

The German Economic Institute for Tourism Research (DwIF) at the University of Munich noted that skiing has actually been stagnant for years, with just 13 percent of Germans taking up the sport today as opposed to 16 percent 10 years ago.

Germans in Austria

The head of the Association of German Funicular and Chair Lifts, Wolfgang Bosche, told the Stadt Anzeiger that hardly any of Germany's 162 chair lifts and funiculars can break even based on winter use alone; summer tourists who ride the lifts for hiking and mountain biking help keep the bills paid.

Meanwhile, Austrians have taken to calling themselves "the country where Germany goes to ski," and makers of snow machines are seeing a potential boom in the climate changes.

Seiler warned that even if German resorts begin making more snow – an expensive proposition at €3 per cubic meter – this would be a short term solution.

"Even snow machines need freezing temperatures," Seiler said.

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