Why you would take this class if you are interested in environmental issues?

            It is remarkable that in the Erzgebirge, a coexistence of nature and human civilization has been sustained through an 800-year history of mining, the conclusion of which has not been reached. There is no doubt that the human presence in the region had a deep influence on the forests (mixed forests became fir woods) and the hydrology (multiple reservoirs from all eras of mining were built and used for water power as well as drinking water and flood protection).  Mine shafts and tunnels have left many mountains in a shape resembling Swiss cheese, causing potential stability issues.  Overburden heaps pose another set of problems, ranginging from unstable packing to inner chemical activity to radio activity in some places. The population density is 232 persons per square kilometer (compare to Minnesota: 9 persons per square mile). Often, the distance between villages, mainly along the river valleys, is less than a mile.

            Despite this apparently endangered status, the Erzgebirge is a beautiful region with large contiguous forest areas, lovely valleys and sleepy villages, offering recreation and healthy air. Inattentive hikers may even miss the signs of previous human activity. Oftentimes, in villages and little towns one’s eye covers architecture from all eras of the 800 or more years of settlement. At the same time, forests and fields, green spaces and trees, mountain meadows, valleys of streams, mountain tops - all are accessible by a dense network of hiking paths which offer views, sheltered spaces, resting huts and benches. The area is home to a plethora of wildlife, including large animals such as deer, rotwild, wild boars and foxes.  Bird watchers will also enjoy the large variety of species.


            Through the 800 years of intense human usage, the need for sustainability of the lifestyle for subsequent generations dictated respect and love for the land.  As early as in the 16th century, the state of Saxony under the governance of the Elector August took steps to ensure sustainable development of mining and economy while preventing destruction of the landscape. Throughout the past 400 years one can find signs of attempts to minimize the effects of mining, smelting and textile industry on the natural region.

Particular examples of environmentally important issues which we will encounter in the course include:


  1. The Freiberger Clemens Alexander Winkler (19th century) not only discovered the element Germanium, but also pioneered the chemistry of smelter smoke and its effect on the surrounding biotopes. His laboratory is part of the Bergakademie Freiberg.


  1. During the 1950s, the Soviet – and later Soviet-German- company Wismut was recklessly exploiting mountains, people and nature in order to pull out the uranium pitchblende for the Soviet nuclear weapons program. This left behind many environmental problems, which have been attended to with financial support from the European Union. The heritage included deep shafts down to 2000 m, huge open pits, “hot” overburdens, poisoned waters, a population endangered by environmental as well as economic problems, but also a proud and capable crop of miners and mining engineers who take pride in their work and in their home region. During the past 15 years, the traces of the Wismut invasion have been treated and the physical signs largely erased. For example, the town of Schlema was a moonscape of overburden heaps until 1990, it is now a Kurbad, to which people travel for recreation and health. The Wismut Museum Schlema reports on the immense challenges that have been overcome in securing and recultivating the overburden, solving radon problems, and cleaning the water ways. A really impressive piece of recovery work which we will examine and appreciate.


  1. Where once arsenic and lead contaminated waters flowing out of the mine (uranium pitchblende and magnetite) went directly into the river, there is now a series of ponds in which the heavy metals are chemically and biologically extracted. A visit to this innovative treatment facility will follow the visit to the mine in Pöhla-Globenstein.


Mine Pöhla-Globenstein: drift with train and water treatment ponds


  1. In the 1980s, the fir and spruce forests on the highest Ergebirge were dying. Skeleton trees covered huge areas which seemed to expand year by year. The culprits were a mixture of monoculture (the firs were used in mines for securing drifts), bark beetles and –in particular- acid rain caused by sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants in the north-bohemian coal fields. The European Union has heavily subsidized filtering equipment for these Czech plants during the 1990s. I am happy to report that a new growth of healthy mixed forest is growing in the once-dead regions.

Hiking path onf Fichtelberg

  1. You may also choose to visit the town of Jachymov (Joachimsthal) which has significance in the biography of Agricola, as the place of the discovery of the elements radium and polonium by the Curies, and as the site of the Czech uranium mine Svornost.  It is also of interest as a coin first minted in this town is the origin of the word “dollar.”  We will see houses built of overburden from this mine which are uninhabitable due to the radiation load. (Fear not – we will not go in, although a trip into the mine, now used as a well source for radium baths, is possible.)


Contaminated house in Jachymov



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