Artificial snow is good for business. As global temperatures rise, which can result in a lack of natural snow, owners of winter ski resorts around the world are forced to face the consequences and often turn to snow making. When there isn’t enough snow to open ski runs, artificial snow production has become a strategic key to guarantee snow cover for the entire ski season. Snow making even extends the ski season, allowing many resorts to open in the fall and sometimes operate well into summer. While a long, snow-filled season is great for avid skiers and snowboarders, and can be fiscally beneficial for resort-owners, snow production has serious environmental consequences. So, before you book your winter vacations, here is what you should know about man-made snow.
Since mountains are one of the most sensitive areas to climate change, the ski industry has to already face real consequences from global warming. The snow season is shorter and shorter due to dryer winters, rainfall instead of snowfall and stronger snowmelt. According to BioOne research, under climate change scenarios, the average ski season is expected to be reduced by 37-57% by 2050, threatening the whole tourism industry linked to snow sports. A shortened snow season means lower earnings and may have a terrible economic impact on regions and countries such as Switzerland where the winter tourism industry is the third most important export industry. In the case of Switzerland, experts have suggested that the tourism-related losses due to climate change could be as high as $1.2 billion annually.
For these reasons, and in spite of the cost, ski resorts have heavily invested in artificial snowmaking to guarantee reliable snow cover and maintain as long as possible the snow season. With current snowmaking technology, the average season is expected to only be reduced by 7-32% by 2050.
While snow making during dry winters can temporarily solve economic issues, it also brings environmental consequences. First, we will explain how they make artificial snow:
Man-made snow is real snow produced by forcing water and pressurized air through a “snow gun” or “snow cannon” on ski slopes. Snow making machines require low temperatures, water pumps and air compressors that are both very large and expensive. The production of artificial snow itself needs large amounts of energy and water. According to SMI Snow Makers, it takes about 75,000 gallons of water to create a 6-inch blanket of snow covering a 200 X 200 foot area. The system in a good-sized ski resort can convert 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water into snow every minute!
Although the water that is pumped by the snow making machines goes back to nature through snowmelt, moving this water around can have negatives effects on plant, animal life and water reserves.
The water loss associated with artificial snow production across the whole of the Alps is equivalent to the annual water consumption of a city with 500,000 inhabitants! Moreover, this intensive use of water for snow making and tourism occurs when water levels are generally at their lowest. Therefore, water has to be transported or stored beforehand in tanks. The creation of snow making equipment (tanks, pipelines, snow guns…) alters landscapes and the ecosystem, and a great deal of energy is required for water transportation.
Another significant environmental concern, and one of a ski resort’s biggest operating expenses, is power consumption. The use of snow guns, water pumps and air systems require a lot of energy. 10,000 snow making machines consume 108 million of kWh each season. Similarly, the pumps that provide water to the snow makers are often run by diesel engines, which expel a high level of air pollution.
Moreover, man-made snow is fifty times harder, four times denser and heavier than natural snow, which tends to waterproof the soil that it covers and makes soil erosion easier. Slower to melt, artificial snow delays the seasonal thaw, occurring quite later for ski resorts which have snow making machines. The longer this artificial snow is maintained, the larger the impact on woody plants, snow bed species, and late-flowering species. Bird diversity is lowest near ski resorts. A study published in Journal of Applied Ecology, 2005, suggests that ski resorts have a direct impact on local bird communities and density, contributing to the modification of their habitat and food sources. A main food source for many bird species is invertebrates, whose population decreases with the development of artificial snow and longer snow cover.
Within the last 30 years global warming has been responsible for a 10% reduction in snow fall. Given the expected change in climate, winter temperatures will continue to rise, snow will become less frequent and so, the trend toward extensive snow production will continue and increase.Thy is why it will be crucial to monitor and regulate the expansion of artificial snow use and surfaces in order to protect water reserves, biodiversity and mountainsides.