Trying to beat the heat wave: the German resort of Oberstdorf tries snow farming for the first time

Oberstdorf, Germany is trying to allow cross-country skiing from November using snow farming, photo:

The German seaside resort of Oberstdorf is experimenting with snow farming for the first time this year. Snow farming is the attempt to preserve snow from the previous season for the following season by piling it up and covering it. In a way, it’s “snow recycling”.

The advantages of snowfarming are:

  • guaranteed snow for events/opening days
  • less energy than artificial snow
  • more economical than artificial snowmaking

Oberstdorf is a popular cross-country skiing destination and hosts the Nordic World Ski Championships every year. The city is located in the state of Bavaria, about 2.5 hours southwest of Munich, near the Austrian border. Oberstdorf is also known for its world-class ski jumping center (you might remember it from the movie ‘Eddie the Eagle’) and also offers downhill skiing. Thanks to its connection with the Austrian ski area of Kleinwalser Valleythe downhill ski area covers a total of 80 miles (130 km) of groomed ski runs.

Pile of snow Oberstdorf
As the snow pile in Oberstdorf is covered, the two separate layers of sawdust and wood shavings are clearly visible, photo: Allgäuer Zeitung

The station piled the remaining snow at the end of March and built a 26-foot (8 m) high pile of snow, which was then covered with 20 inches (50 cm) of wood chips and sawdust. Of wood. The snow will then be uncovered at the end of October and moved with trucks and snow plows to form the cross-country ski trail around the resort so that training can begin in November.

Since March, the pile height has decreased by about 5 feet (1.5 m). Two-thirds of the volume loss can be attributed to melting, but one-third is attributed to snow condensation over the storage period, due to compaction by its own weight, as well as settling of the snow layers on time. The storage of snow piles over a long period was analyzed and extensively documented by Swiss scientists from the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davoswhich have been successfully experimenting with snowmaking since 2008. The loss of volume is entirely within the expected range despite the European heat wave.

layers of snow
Snow drilling samples after 6 months of storage at various depths from a 30ft (9m) snow pile in Davos, photo: “Pistenpräparation und Pistenpflege – das Handbuch für den Praktiker”)

The method of snow farming using wood chips and sawdust, as used in Oberstdorf and Davos, is based on the properties of wood itself. Wood absorbs water, so it prevents snow from being washed away, and the following sun will dry out the wood chips, while the resulting evaporation will cause a cooling effect for the snow below.

There are variations of this method of snow farming at various resorts in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Slovenia. Some strategies include the use of a geothermal sheet on top of wood chips and sawdust while others rely solely on the use of fabric coverings.

The Oberstdorf team estimates that of the current snow pile of 1,7667 tonnes (5,000 cubic meters), around 20-25% of the volume will be lost by the end of October. The resort wants to use the snow for the cross-country training of the German national Nordic combined team from November. The neighboring Bavarian resort of Ruhpolding has been engaged in snow farming since 2019 with good results. However, other Bavarian stations, such as Scheidegg, tried snow farming and were only able to use 20% of their original snow piles, rendering them virtually useless.

Gondola above Oberstdorf Kleinwalsertal ski resort, photo:

Critics called it an “unnecessary luxury” and argued that the $40,000 (€40,000) was a waste of money and energy, as the project only serves an elite of athletes. Florian Speigl, director of the Nordic Centre, is however quick to point out that it would be much more expensive and leave a much larger carbon footprint to transport these same athletes to Scandinavia for training.

The Nordic combined event is one of Germany’s premier events in winter sports, with Vinzenz Geiger winning individual gold and team silver at the Beijing Olympics 2022. He is famous for coming straight out of his Covid-19 isolation to compete and managed to win the fourth straight Nordic combined gold medal for Germany at the Winter Olympics. Unsurprisingly, the double Olympic champion is from Oberstdorf. Understandably, much hinges on this small town’s ability to create state-of-the-art training facilities for one of Germany’s key disciplines.

About Richard Chandler

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