Global warming is real, and it’s beginning to shorten our snow seasons. The most realistic solution to this crisis is to make our own, artificial snow, a practice that has been going on since the 1950s and one that has been in the news lately with new technology allowing resorts to make snow in warm weather. Snow-making machines have advanced in efficiency but, the real question is, is the snow worth the energy spent to produce it?
Ski resorts across the country use snow-making machines. It’s certainly not an uncommon practice, and it’s rarely seen as a huge environmental threat. But it is definitely something worth taking a step back and dissecting. When looking at snow-making machines from an environmental perspective, there are two major sacrifices that we make when using them – water and energy usage.
First off, it’s important to get a basic understanding of how these snow machines work. Though there are many manufacturers and models, which operate at different efficiency levels, most utilize the same common design concepts.
First, water is broken up into smaller particles. Those particles are then cooled to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat of fusion is then removed and the particles nucleate and form ice. I know a lot of that probably doesn’t make a ton of sense, so think of it this way – an artificial cloud is formed with water droplets that are super-cooled below freezing temperatures, at very fast speeds. Some modern machines form snow that is relatively dry, in order to slow down the rate that it melts. The snow is then dispersed through the use of an air compressor, or a fan, which blows it on to desired slopes.
The most common practice is to pump water out of reservoirs, streams, or lakes. Recently, some resorts have taken the step to use highly treated sewage water – a controversial practice. One potential problem with the displacement of water is more-so the displacement of what’s in the water. There have been instances where minerals such as zinc, copper, lead, and other metals have been found in water being used for snow. Even if it is clean water being used, taking water out of streams and lakes can have some seriously negative effects on aquatic life. Especially in the fall months, when trout are spawning and temperatures are changing.
This may not sound like a tremendous environmental impact at first glance, but a large amount of water is needed when making snow. According to snowmakers.com, it takes 74,600 gallons of water to cover a 200 by 200-foot plot with 6 inches of snow.
So all in all, there are plenty of negative effects when using so much water, however, often the water is going to end up in the same reservoirs and streams that it came from. For example, Boreal Mountain, in Truckee, CA, chooses to use the water from its own wells, therefore no foreign minerals are being brought into the environment, and most of the water returns to where it came from. In addition to where the resort gets its water, Boreal has also implemented a new model of snow-machine that is setting the standard for efficiency and water usage. According to an interview by Snowboarder magazine, Boreal snow maker Matt Melilli, said, “The machine uses only about 12 gallons per minute. Most fan guns that make snow in the wintertime go from 40, all the way up to 100 gallons per minute, depending on how cold it is. What makes this really efficient is it takes the water and freezes all of it. We don’t lose much to evaporation or wind loss, because it’s coming out as ice.”
And neither is coal. And it is probably the biggest expense that we pay, in exchange for artificial snow. Snow machines often run off electricity or sometimes diesel fuel. When looking at the situation from the environmental perspective, it’s like we are running backwards – CO2 emissions are causing climate change, climate change is cutting snow seasons short, we make snow to compensate, more energy is spent making snow, more coal is burned, more CO2 is released. It takes a ton of energy to supply a resort with a surplus of man-made snow. Water needs to be pumped, the machine needs to operate (which essentially works like a giant refrigerator with a bunch of moving parts added on), then the air compressors and fans need to blow. The price of making snow is enormous for resorts, but having sufficient coverage early in the season brings in an insane amount of business that would otherwise be lost. As Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters, told us, “The flip-side is that if we blow more snow, it’s adding to the problem.”
Some resorts are setting an example by creating new ways to power their snow-making equipment. Jiminy Peak, in Western Mass., uses the help of a wind turbine that provides 4.6 million kilowatt hours of energy – that equals out to a third of the entire resort’s energy usage. This is exactly the type of proactive answer we need: being a part of the solution.
In the big picture, snow-making certainly does require a lot of energy, however it does not compare to many other energy-hoarding practices that exist today. “The energy use is the most concerning thing, but we have way bigger problems than snow-making,” Steinkamp said.
When it’s all said and done, it’s unlikely that we’ll see less snow-making. And that’s probably okay. But, as members of the snowsports community, it’s our responsibility to be stewards of the land and try to protect the future of our sport and continue to stay informed.