The Details of Artificial Snow: Is It the Future of Skiing?

If you've spent any time at ski resorts, chances are that you have seen snow-making machines. Read on to learn about man-made snow and what it means for skiing.

A snow-making machine drops man-made snow on one of the slopes Jan. 9, 2019, at Whitetail Ridge Ski Area at Fort McCoy, Wis.

A snow-making machine drops man-made snow on one of the slopes Jan. 9, 2019 at Whitetail Ridge Ski Area at Fort McCoy, Wis.

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If you watched any skiing or snowboarding at the Beijing Winter Olympics you probably noticed something strange about the snow this year. There were patches of white where the racecourses or Olympic-specific trails were, but the rest of the mountain was covered with dirt. The reason this looked so strange is that the Olympic venues were using artificial, “man-made” snow in order to have enough snow to host the events.

Though this isn’t the first game that relied on artificial snow, it is the first time the snow at the Olympics has been 100% artificial. This raised a lot of conversation around the topic of artificial snow. And with temperatures across the planet rising and once-popular skiing destinations seeing significantly more volatility in their yearly snowfall, it's hard not to think about more and more each year.

So what even is artificial snow? Is it good or bad? What does it mean for the future of the winter sports we love?

History of Artificial Snow

A snowmaking machine.

A snowmaking machine. Photo courtesy of Snow Tech Co.

Artificial or “man-made'' snow started in Canada in the 1940s. Researchers were studying ice formation in relation to jet engines when they sprayed water through a refrigerated wind tunnel. The high-pressure liquid water met the compressed freezing air, and out came snow, starting the era of man-made snow. (For more specifics, here's a detailed breakdown of the process accounted for by an atmospheric scientist.)

Ski resorts in New England were first to adopt the use of artificial snow soon after its discovery. Fast forward to 2022, and most countries rely on artificial snow in some capacity. Out of the 319 ski resorts registered in the U.S. with the National Ski Area Association, 283 of those have artificial snow machines. According to a nonprofit study, U.S. ski resorts would lose 1.07 billion dollars annually without artificial snow production. And with the warming planet there will be more of a need for more man-made snow in future years, meaning this cost will only go up!

Some of the areas that use these machines only use artificial snow to boost their snowfall, and other ski areas wouldn’t have adequate snow coverage to stay open during the winter without it. Then there are resorts, like Ski Dubai, which are entirely indoors (not to mention, in a country that has an average temperature of 67 degrees Fahrenheit during the coldest month of the year). They would, of course, cease to exist if it weren't for the option of artificial snow.

Artificial snow was first seen in the Olympics during the 1980 games in Lake Placid, New York. It has been used in several other games since – including Sochi, PyeongChang, and more, but the Beijing games were the first to use 100% fake snow.

According to a study by the University of Waterloo, with the current trends seen in the warming climate, only one of the 21 cities that have ever hosted the Winter Olympics will still have the conditions to be able to host them by the end of the 21st century. Sapporo, Japan, is the only place estimated to have low enough temperatures to maintain a mix of artificial and natural snowfall to host these events by the end of the century.

Is It the Same as Regular Snow?

So what's the problem? Snow is snow, right? Not exactly. This artificial snow is not the same snow you and I are used to skiing on a powder day. Through the process of snow manufacturing, the water molecules in artificial snow are much different than those in natural snow. The water droplets that fall like snow from these snow guns are much more densely packed than the water droplets you’d find in your average natural snow crystals.

Natural snowflake on the left and a manmade snowflake on the right, both images taken under a microscope.

Natural snowflake on the left and a manmade snowflake on the right, both images taken under a microscope. Photo courtesy of Kenneth G. Libbrecht

This construction difference is great for keeping the snow from melting on warmer days, but it doesn’t yield the same result on the slopes as a natural snowstorm. It's much icier and heavier. This can be good for ski racers whose sole goal is carving down the mountain with their sharp edges, but for just about everyone else, it's bad news.

For the average person, it means icier, more dangerous, and fewer fun slopes. For nordic skiers, it means a lot of slipping around since nordic skis are not equipped with sharp edges as downhill skis are. It’s also bad news for most other competitive skiers who aren’t racers, such as slopestyle skiers.

Slopestyle skier Alex Hall goes off a jump.

Slopestyle skier Alex Hall goes off a jump. With the height skiers such as Alex are getting off of jumps such as this, a harder surface when landing can increase the safety risk. Photo by Camron Zavell

Slopestyle skiers are known for getting massive air off a jump, doing a series of spins and flips in the air, and landing. The jumps are often 27 ft, and the skiers often propel themselves close to 18 feet up into the air as they are doing a flip. With the way the landings are set up, this means they can find themselves 60 feet in the air above the landing. This is a lot of room for things to go wrong and could cause a serious impact if they are to fall from that height. You can imagine, with icier takeoffs and landings, this takes a dangerous sport to the next level of danger. If a skier were to fall from this height on regular, natural snow there would still be a severe impact, but it would not be nearly as hard as the impact from hitting these icy slopes.

Issues with “Man-Made” Snow

Ok, but aside from that, icier slopes don’t sound so bad, right? Unfortunately, it doesn't just stop there. One of the other huge downfalls is water consumption.

To cover just an acre with a foot of snow requires 200,000 gallons of water. Most large East Coast ski resorts use about 250 million gallons of water during a single season. Out of that water, only 80% of it is returned to the watershed. While 80% may seem high at first, when you consider that most of the United States has seen unprecedented drought conditions for the last three years, removing 20% of 250 million gallons of water per ski resort is definitely significant. Not to mention that removing a large amount of water from an area that's in a drought makes it much harder for that area to recover quickly from that drought and turns it into more of a longer-term issue. These numbers are for East Coast resorts, which, even the large ones, are quite a bit smaller than your average West Coast resort. Western states are hit much harder by the droughts, so this will create an unfortunate situation for those West Coast ski resorts that need more water to make more snow in a time when there is less water than ever before.

Severe droughts also help worsen the effects of climate change which is what’s responsible for the need for such high levels of artificial snow in the first place. This creates a negative feedback loop, as shown below.

A feedback loop explaining how drought and increased temperatures increase the need for manmade snow which makes the drought worse.

Protect Our Winters is a non-profit organization that aims to turn outdoor enthusiasts into climate advocates by using their personal experiences with winter sports as a motivation. Their in-depth publication on this topic, Slippery Slopes: How Climate Change is Threatening the Winter Olympics, details why you, as a winter sports enthusiast, should be worried about the future of winter sports.

Winter destinations across the world used to have a relatively predictable snowfall. Now that the predictable snowfall has been replaced by volatile patterns of heavy snowfall followed by long, warm, dry spells, there have been many issues, including impacts on winter recreation.

So Is Artificial Snow the Future?

A ski gondola sits on a snowless mountain.

Photo by Kevin Schmid

Yes and no—but mostly no.

With the ski industry being as big as it is, most resorts will continue to stock their trails with artificial snow for as long as possible. But this has a few caveats and can only last so long.

We will no longer have skiing as we know it. Skiing will transition into a similar scene to what we saw in Beijing this year, with artificial snow on trails but not covering the trees and mountains like we are used to seeing in the past. Many of those off-piste runs that most of us love so much won’t be as fun, if they are even accessible for skiing at all. Most of them likely won’t have adequate coverage to be safe or skiable. The on-trail runs that do have artificial snow will be icier due to the difference in snow construction, so it won’t be the same lightweight powder that we are used to skiing on the first few runs after a storm. It will be heavier, denser, and icier earlier.

As for backcountry skiing? Any skiing that takes place outside of a resort has a much more grave future in store. In the last few years, with the increasing snowfall volatility, we have seen higher avalanche danger than ever before and many areas that used to be covered in snow all winter now have sections of dirt and rock that you must navigate around.

But most importantly? Water. As droughts continue, rising water costs will raise the prices of season passes and day tickets in areas that are able to continue blowing snow, making the winter sports industry even more financially accessible than it is now. With rising frequencies of unprecedented droughts being seen across the world, there simply won't be enough water to keep this going forever.

The multi-billion dollar industry of ski resorts—which is not well known for its environmental actions or climate concern—could easily be over by the end of this century unless serious action is taken.

It’s easy to watch the Winter Olympics with the artificial snow and breathe out a sigh of relief, thinking that we can continue to blow snow at our local resorts. But the truth is, this is not a sustainable long-term solution to the winter sports industry and is only a band-aid for the much bigger issue of our changing climate.

Ski Expert Hunter R.
Hunter R.
Ski Expert
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Hey there! My name is Hunter and I grew up in Ogden, Utah - one of the most underrated places for skiing IMO (but shh don't tell your friends). I considered leaving the state for college for all of five minutes until I realized the access to skiing, climbing, etc. in Utah is unparalleled. So I just...

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