Rügen: German island's 'white cliffs' collapsing into the sea

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The Independent Online

The towering chalk cliffs that form the spectacular coastline of the Baltic holiday island of Rügen have been immortalised by 19th- century Romantic painters and are Germany's equivalent of the white cliffs of Dover – but now they are collapsing into the sea.

Officials on Germany's largest island were yesterday forced to shut down a harbour on Rügen's north east coast and close kilometre-long stretches of beach because of fears that large swathes of its legendary cliffs would disintegrate and tumble into the Baltic Sea.

The emergency measures were announced after a 100-metre long section of cliff near the island port of Sassnitz fell into the sea on Wednesday, sending 20,000 cubic metres of chalk crashing several hundred feet on to the beach below. The landslide posed a serious threat to tourists, who visit Rügen in large numbers.

Island officials and conservation experts said yesterday that unusually high rainfall and record water table levels had caused the cliffs to become completely waterlogged, which made them particularly susceptible to disintegration and collapse. Tourists were warned to stay off all beaches beneath the cliffs.

Jörg Gothow, the spokesman for civil engineers monitoring the state of the cliffs, said that every second measuring device installed along one section showed that water content levels had topped last year's all-time high. "The water levels are extreme," he said.

Rügen's chalk cliffs feature in numerous works by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who visited the island frequently at the beginning of the 19th century. The cliffs, which offer panoramic views of the Baltic Sea and Germany's mainland coast, are the highlight of the island's national park and are visited by millions each year.

Aerial photographs of the island's north-east normally display a pristine coastline of shining white cliffs crowned by a large forest of beech trees. But pictures taken this week showed that huge swathes of cliff face had been stained brown by the flow of rainwater or had simply collapsed, crushing carefully-built wooden cliff stairways under heaps of sodden chalk. The latest casualty to suffer from the imminent threat of a cliff landslide is the small yacht and fishing harbour at the village of Lohme on Rügen's north coast. The harbour was allowed to disintegrate while Rügen was under Communist rule, but it was painstakingly restored after German reunification in 1990 and offered hotels, a pub-restaurant and facilities for yachts.

The harbour and the surrounding village are facing an uncertain future. "Because of the current situation we have been forced to shut down the entire harbour and the pub," Karl-Heinz Walter, a district official, said yesterday. He said a ban had been imposed on entering a number of other properties in the village because the cliff face above was unstable. "There is an extreme danger of further landslides ," he said.

A landslide first hit the village in March 2005, when a 100-metre section of cliff toppled into the harbour – nearly taking a retirement home with it. In recent years many sections of cliff face have collapsed on to Rügen's beaches or into the sea below.

A vista called Wissower Klinken, which forms a ravine in the cliffs, was captured by Friedrich in one of his paintings. The artist's view was permanently altered in early 2005 when a section of cliff depicted in the painting collapsed on to the beach below after heavy rain.

Geologists say the cliffs have always suffered from erosion resulting from hard frosts followed by a sudden thaw and the effects of wind and waves. However, the heavy rainfall experienced during recent winters, which coincides with scientific data about the warming of the Baltic Sea, appears to have dramatically worsened the problem.