Sylt (Sild; Söl'ring North Frisian: Söl' ) is an island in northern Germany, part of Nordfriesland district, Schleswig-Holstein and well known for the distinct shape of its shoreline. It belongs to the North Frisian Islands. It is the largest island in North Frisia. The northernmost German island is known for its notable tourist resorts Westerland, Kampen and Wenningstedt-Braderup, as well as for its sandy beach of 40 km length. It is frequently covered by media in connection with its exposed situation in the North Sea and its ongoing loss of land during storm surges. Since 1927 Sylt is connected to the mainland via the Hindenburgdamm causeway.
The island's shape has constantly shifted over time, a process which is still ongoing today. The northern and southern spits of Sylt are exclusively made up of unfertile sand deposits, while the central part with the municipalities of Westerland, Wenningstedt-Braderup and Sylt-Ost consists of a geestland core, which becomes apparent in the form of the Red Cliff of Wenningstedt. The geestland facing the Wadden Sea gradually turns into fertile marshland around Sylt-Ost. Today sources show that Sylt has only been an island since the Grote Mandrenke flood of 1362. The so called Uwe-Düne (Uwe Dune) is the island's highest elevation with 52.5 m above sea level.
The annual mean temperature is 8.5 °C. The annually averaged wind speed measures 6.7 m/s, predominantly from western directions. The annual rainfall amounts to about 650 millimetres. Since 1937 weather data are collected at Deutscher Wetterdienst's northernmost station on a dune near List, which has meanwhile become automated. A number of commercial meteorological services like Meteomedia AG operate stations in List too.
In 1141 Sylt is recorded as an island, yet prior to the Grote Mandrenke flood it belonged to a landscape cut by tidal creeks and at least during low tide it could be reached by foot. Only after this flood, the creation of a spit from sediments began to form the current characteristical shape of Sylt. Thereby mainly the northern and southern edges of Sylt were and still are the subject of great change. E.g. Listland was separated from the rest of the island in the 14th century and from the later 17th century on, the Königshafen (King's Harbour) began to silt up as the "elbow" spit began to form.
In addition to the constant loss of land, the inhabitants during the Little Ice Age were strained by sand drift. Dunes shifting to the east threatened settlements and arable land and had to be stopped by the planting of marram grass in the 18th century. Consequently though, material breaking off the island was increasingly washed away and the island's substance continued to decrease.
Record of the annual land loss exist since 1870. According to them, Sylt lost an annual 0.4 m of land in the north and 0.7 m in the south from 1870 to 1951. From 1951 to 1984 the ratio increased while to 0.9 and 1.4 m respectively, while shorelines at the island's very edges at Hörnum and List are even more affected.
Severe storm surges of the last decades have repeatedly endagered Sylt to the edge of breaking in two, e.g. Hörnum was temporarily cut off the island in 1962. An only 500 m wide part of the island near Rantum is especially threatened.
Measures of protection against the continuous erosion date back to the early 19th century when groynes of wooden poles were constructed. Those were built rectangular into the sea from the coast line. Later they were replaced by metal and eventually by armoured concrete groynes. The constructions did not have the desired effect though to stop the erosion caused by crossways currents. "Leeward erosion", i.e. erosion on the downwind side of the groynes prevented sustainable accumulation of sand.
In the 1960s it was tried to break the power of the sea by installing tetrapods along the groyne bases or by putting them into the sea like groynes. The four-fingered structures, built in France, were too heavy for Sylt's beaches with tons of weight and were equally unable to prevent erosion. Therefore they have been removed from the Hörnum west beach in 2005.
Since the early 1970s the only effective means so far has been flushing sand onto the shore. Dredging vessels use to pump a mixture of sand and water to a beach where it is spread by bulldozers. Thus storm floods will only erase the artificial storage of sand, while the shoreline proper remains intact and erosion is slowed down. This procedure causes considerable costs. The required budget of an annual €10 million is currently provided by federal German, Schleswig-Holstein state and EU funds. Since 1972 an estimated 35.5 million cubic metres of sand have been flushed ashore and dumped on Sylt. The measures have so far cost more than €134 million in total, but according to scientific calculations they are sufficient to prevent greater loss of land for at least three decades, so the benefits for the island's economic power and for the economically underdeveloped region in general would outweigh the costs. In the 1995 study Klimafolgen für Mensch und Küste am Beispiel der Nordseeinsel Sylt (Climate impact for Man and Shores as seen on the North Sea island Sylt) it reads: "Hätte Sylt nicht das Image einer attraktiven Ferieninsel, gäbe es den Küstenschutz in der bestehenden Form gewiss nicht" (If Sylt did not have the image of an attractive holiday island, coastal management in its current form would certainly not exist).
The enforcement of a natural reef off Sylt is being discussed as an alternative solution. A first experiment was conducted from 1996 to 2003. A sand drainage as being successfully used on Danish islands is not likely to work on Sylt due to the underwater slope here.
Parallelly to the ongoing sand flushing, the deliberate demolition of groynes has begun amid great effort at certain beach sections where they were proven largely ineffective. This measure also terminated the presumably most famous groyne of Sylt, Buhne 16 — the namesake of the local nude beach.
A number of experts, however, fears that Sylt will still have to face considerable losses of land until the mid 21st century. The continuous global warming is thought to result in increasing storm activity, which would result in increased land loss and, as a first impact, might mean the end for property insurances. Measurements showed that, unlike in former times, the wave energy of the sea is not any more consumed off the beach, today it carries its destructive effects on to the beaches proper. This will result in an annual loss of sand of 1.1 million m³. The dunes of the island constitute nature reserves and may only be entered on marked tracks. So called "wild paths" promote erosion and are not to be followed. Where vegetation is tread upon and no roots are left to hold the sand, it will be removed by wind and water.
The Wadden Sea on the east side between Sylt and the mainland is nature reserve and bird sanctuary since 1935 and is part of the Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park. The construction of breakwaters in this area shall abate sedimentation and is used for land reclamation.
Also the grazing of sheep on the sea dikes and heaths of Sylt eventually serves coastal management, since the animals keep the vegetation short and compress the soil with their hooves. Thus they help create a denser dike surface, which in case of storm surges provides less area for the waves to impact.
The flora of Sylt is shaped by the island's original sparingness. Until the mid 19th century Sylt was an island almost completely devoid of trees, only artificial plantations created small areas of forest and bush. Still today one can recognize the devised structure of the Friedrichshain and Südwäldchen forests in Westerland, the tress are mostly standing in rank and file. Also the now widespread Rosa rugosa, known as "Sylt rose" on the island was only imported to Sylt. It originates from the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia. The undemanding rose met ideal conditions on Sylt and spread so quickly that it is now a common sight on the island. Its proliferation is viewed critically from a biological point of view, since it threatens to displace endangered local species, especially on the heaths.
The ample heaths on the eastern side of the island provide habitats for many rare species of plants and animals which are adapted to the extreme conditions like drought, warmth, wind. About 2,500 animal species and 150 species of plants have so far been recorded. 45% of those plants are on the IUCN Red List. Especially notable are the 600 species of butterflies that live in the heaths, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone, Painted Lady and Peacock butterfly among them.
With several thousand individuals in the dune belt of Sylt, the Natterjack Toad, endangered in Germany, has one of Germany's largest habitats here. Their spawning places are wettened dune slacks and shallow, short-lived pools.For a living they prefer sandy areas with vegetation. The main threat for this species on Sylt is road traffic.
The many water birds and other coastal avians, that have their hatching grounds on Sylt or use the island for resting on their migrations constitute an ornithological feature. There are two notable hatching areas on Sylt, the Königshafen bay with the small island Uthörn in the north and the Rantum basin in the southeast. Birds that use to hatch on Sylt include Black-headed Gull, Arctic Tern, Pied Avocet, Common Redshank, Common Gull, Oystercatcher, Northern Lapwing, Common Shelduck and Tufted Duck. During the migration, Sylt is a resting spot for thousands of Brent Gooses and Shelducks, Eurasian Wigeons and Common Eiders, as well as Bar-tailed Godwit, Red knots, Dunlins and Eurasian Golden Plovers. Ringed Plover, Common Snipe, Ruff and other species are less common visitors to the island.
Concerning land mammals, there is no significant deviation from the neighbouring areas of mainland Nordfriesland. Primarily European Hare, Rabbit and Roe deer can be found and are also hunted as game on the island. When the island was connected to the mainland by the causeway, also fox and badger became common.
West of Sylt a breeding area of Harbour Porpoises is located. In addition, great numbers of Harbour Seals and Grey Seals, the latters being rather uncommon in German seas, can be found on sand banks off Sylt.
Numerous associations and societies that care for the exploration and the protection of endangered animals and plants have their branches on Sylt. Among them are the Alfred-Wegener-Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Verein Jordsand and Schutzstation Wattenmeer. Also the Federal Office for the Environment operates a research station in the dunes at Westerland.
Sylt is divided into two adninistrative bodies: the Amt Landschaft Sylt with its seat in Keitum aministrates all municipalities on the island, save for the independent town of Westerland. As of December 2007, Sylt had 21,190 inhabitants, 9,072 of whom living in Westerland. These numbers do not include owners of summer residences.
A referendum held in May 2008 decided for the merger of the Sylt-Ost municipality with the town of Westerland due 1 January 2009. Verious groups of interest are thereby striving for a fusion of all municipalities on the island into a single governing body.
After the complete destruction of the village Eidum by a storm surge on 1 November 1436, the survivors founded a new village northeast of their old home: Westerland. The name was first recorded in 1462. In 1865 a seaside spa was founded, 50 years later Westerland was granted town privileges. In 1949 it was finally officially recognised as a health resort. In 2007 the town counted 9,072 citizens.
South of Westerland, the island extends for about 15 km in the form of a spit, until it is cut by the Hörnumtief tidal creek, that runs through the Wadden Sea mudflats east of Sylt. Here is the location of Rantum. This village, like no other on Sylt, had to fight sand drift during the past centuries. Many farmsteads and a church had to be abandoned due to shifting dunes moving eastward. Only the planting of marram grass stopped the dunes and put an end to this threat. To the east there are a few scattered spots of marshland, while the area is mostly coined by dunes.
Hörnum on the island's southern headland is the youngest village, having been founded shortly after 1900. But already in former times the uninhabited southern tip of Sylt was said to serve as refuge for pirates and fishermen. The name Budersand in the area emanates from that custom, marking a great dune where booths (Buden) stood in former times to serve as shelters. This southern headland, called Odde, is marked by continuous loss of land. Each year great amounts of sand are washed away by storm floods and coastal management has not yet seen sustainable effects in the area, so that further losses have to be expected.
As in many areas in Schleswig-Holstein on New Year's Eve, groups of children go masked from house to house, reciting poems. This is known as "Rummelpottlaufen", and as a reward, children receive sweets and/or money.
Sylt also has unique Frisian-style houses.
Today, Sylt is mainly a tourist attraction, famous for its healthy climate, and the many German celebrities who own houses on the island. The beach even has a nude section.