The German resort of Oberstdorf is experimenting for the first time this year with snow farming. Snow farming is the attempt to preserve the snow from the previous season for the next season by piling it together and covering it. In a way, it is ‘snow-recycling’.
The advantages of snow farming are:
- guaranteed snow for events/opening days
- lower energy than artificial snowmaking
- more economical than artificial snowmaking
Oberstdorf is a popular cross-country destination and hosts the annual Nordic World Ski Championships. The town is located in the state of Bavaria, about 2.5 hours southwest of Munich, close to the Austrian border. Oberstdorf is also known for its world-class ski jumping facility (you may recall it from the “Eddie the Eagle” movie) and also has alpine skiing. Through its connection to the Austrian ski area of Kleinwalsertal, the alpine ski area expands to a total of 80 miles (130km) of groomed ski runs.
The resort piled together the remaining snow at the end of this March and built a 26 ft (8m) high snow pile, which was then covered with 20in (50cm) of wood chips and sawdust. The snow will then be uncovered in late October and moved with trucks and snowploughs to form the cross-country track around the resort so training can start in November.
Since March, the height of the pile has shrunk by about 5ft (1.5m). Two-thirds of the volume loss can be attributed to melting, but one-third is attributed to a condensing of the snow over the storage period, due to it being compacted by its own weight, as well as a settling of the snow layers over time. The storage of snow piles over a long period was analysed and documented extensively by Swiss scientists from the ‘Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research’ in Davos, who have been trialling snow farming successfully since 2008. The volume loss is entirely within the expected range despite the European heatwave.
The snow farming method of using wood chips and sawdust, as used in Oberstdorf and Davos, is based on the very properties of wood. Wood absorbs water, so it protects the snow from being washed away, and the subsequent 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 across various resorts in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Slovenia. Some strategies include the use of a geothermal sheet on top of the wood chips and sawdust while others rely solely on the use of fabric coverings.
The team in Oberstdorf estimates that of the current 1,7667 ton (5,000 cubic metre) snow pile, about 20-25% volume will be lost by late October. The resort wants to use the snow for cross-country training of the German National Nordic Combined Team from November onwards. The nearby Bavarian resort of Ruhpolding has been engaging in snow farming since 2019 with good results. However, other Bavarian resorts, like Scheidegg, have tried snow farming and have only been able to use 20% of their original snow piles, rendering it essentially useless.
Critics have called it a “wasteful luxury” and argued that the $40,000 (EUR 40,000) is a waste of money and energy, as the project is serving an elite few athletes. Florian Speigl, manager of the Nordic Centre, however, is quick to point out that it would be much more costly and leave a much bigger carbon footprint to fly these same athletes to Scandinavia for training.
The Nordic Combined Event is one of Germany’s star events in winter sports, with Vinzenz Geiger winning individual Gold and Team Silver at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. He famously came straight out of his Covid-19 isolation to compete and managed to bring home the fourth consecutive Gold in Nordic Combined for Germany at the Winter Olympics. Not surprisingly, the two-time Olympic champion is an Oberstdorf native. It is understandable that a lot hangs on this small town’s ability to create state-of-the-art training facilities for one of Germany’s key disciplines.