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  • Writer's pictureCaitlyn Hanley

Balancing the Thrills of Winter Sports with Environmental Concerns of Snow Making

Caitlyn Hanley, Climate Action Planning Fellow with GPCOG, broadly analyzes the impact artificial snow making has on the surrounding environment. With temperatures and rainfall both on the rise, she expresses environmental concern for the increasing dependence on snow making.


Although snowy winters and crisp air have been a consistent staple of winters for generations, the impending terrors of climate change continue to crush the snowscape image, posing significant concern for the winter sports industry. With shorter ski seasons due to rising temperatures and decreasing natural snowfall, ski resorts across the country are becoming increasingly reliant on artificial snowmaking operations to keep their mountains open and profitable. For those who engage with snow sports, myself included, snowmaking can be critical for the snowpack of the hill, as well as for the exhilaration of the athlete. 

 

Snowpack is determined to be one of the fastest-changing hydrologic compounds with a warming climate. In several ways, snowmaking has successfully distracted from the ~50% annual snowfall decrease since the 1970s (Garay, 2022). Snowmaking also provides consistency in snow cover for ski resorts. Much like an insurance policy, they try to assure customers that resorts will remain open throughout the winter. Often starting in late autumn and extending into early spring, snowmakers can extend the ski season and boost revenues (Garay, 2022), making for a great investment, especially in rural communities where winter tourism and recreation fuel the economy and employment opportunities.

 

While snowmaking has been a successful band-aid solution to the much larger climate problem, the imbalance of artificial to natural snow has introduced grave environmental concerns. Snowmaking attempts to mimic natural snowfall conditions. Small water droplets are mixed with compressed air, frozen in cold air, and then pushed out as pellet-shaped snow particles which are more resilient to the freeze/thaw cycles compared to nature’s snow. On average, it takes 200,000 gallons of water to cover an acre with one foot of this type of snow (Snow Knowledge: Technology of Snowmaking). Such snowmaking efforts interfere significantly with the ecosystem's natural water table and an overall capacity for snowmelt.

 

Ecologically, the melted water from snowpack is the dominant source of water for river flow and groundwater in snowy regions. Snowmelt driven climate events, such as rain on snow (ROS) events which are crucial drivers for severe floods, can yield economic and environmental impacts on local and regional communities (Cho et al., 2021). Studies done by Cho et al determined in snow dominant regions, ROS can cause extreme runoff, inducing devastating results (Cho et al., 2021). With the progression of a warmer climate, increased precipitation will likely occur through rainfall instead of snowfall, subsequently resulting in more intense rain on snow events (Cho et al., 2021).

 

Although this essay does not analyze it in depth, it is important to acknowledge the energy consumption used by snow makers, resulting in negative ecological consequences. Although some mountains are making shifts, historically snow makers have relief on fossil fuels to function. Water pumps and air compressors are the biggest consumers in the operation, requiring high amounts of energy to push water from rivers or reservoirs up the mountain into the guns, and air compressors to pressurize the air, then eject it out to the slopes. Newer snow guns are more efficient; however, they are a huge upfront investment.

 

In an era where heavy rainstorms are becoming more prominent, the artificial addition of hundreds of gallons of water atop water tables which are already at their maximum threshold will inevitably devastate roads, farmland, fields, ecosystems, homes, and more. Artificial snow melts much slower than natural snow, altering normal levels of water tables (Dingle, 2019). Likewise, the chemical compounds of artificial snow freeze differently, and when rain displaces the snow at a ski resort, the biodiversity of local ecosystems suffers. For example, abnormal ice layers can form on plants, damaging them. Reservoirs are often put in by the ski resort to supply enough water to support snow guns. The large surface areas of the reservoirs increase evaporation in the region, disrupting the water cycle. When reservoirs are not created, water is redirected from nearby stream sources, yet again, interfering with nature's normal path (Dingle, 2019). The potential changes disturb the natural balances of the water cycles with unknown long-term impacts on ecosystems and communities.



Figure 1. This figure shows the basic cycle of groundwater's natural holding capacities.

 

Snow makers have become a necessary backbone for ski resorts, regardless of location or time of year. With temperatures increasing, snow making is easily attributed to the consistent successes of ski resorts and the coveted thrills of winter recreation. Yet, unbeknownst to most winter enthusiasts, the detrimental impacts on ecosystems particularly at lower elevations, loom ominously. If ski resorts are going to continue to use snow makers at the rising capacity needed to produce snow for the entire mountain, they need to find balances between snow making, snow melt, water capacity, and appropriate infrastructure. Then, the thrill of the snowpack will be more worth its weight in water. 

 


 


Citations

Cho, E., McCrary, R. R., & Jacobs, J. M. (2021). Future Changes in Snowpack, Snowmelt, and Runoff Potential Extremes Over North America. Geophysical Research Letters, 48(22). https://doi.org/10.1029/2021gl094985


Dingle, A. (2019, January). Artificial Snow: A slippery slope. American Chemical Society. https://www.acs.org/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2018-2019/december-2018/artificial-snow-a-slippery-slope.html


Garay, E. (2022, November 22). All About Artificial Snow. Uncommon Path – An REI Co-op Publication. https://www.rei.com/blog/news/artificial-snow-and-climate-change

Snow Knowledge: Technology of Snowmaking. SnowMakers. (n.d.).            https://snowmakers.com/snow-knowledge/ 



About Caitlyn


Caitlyn is excited to return to her hometown of Portland, ME, to join the Resilience Corps. Caitlyn’s passion for ecosystem conservation, soil health, and community involvement was first piqued when she was younger, working part time at small, organic farms. Focusing on the intersection between environmental science and public health, she graduated from Bates College in May of 2023 with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies. She spent the summer in Carrabassett Valley working as a GIS Technician for Sugarloaf’s Mountain Bike Park and the fall working as a barista in Vermont. In her new role with the Resilience Corps, she hopes to learn how to combat issues of environmental degradation at an a local level. In her free time, Caitlyn loves to bike, ski, knit, swim in the ocean, and paint. She is excited to build a new community and learn about her hometown from a different perspective.

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