Melting Ski Resorts Have a Snow Machine Problem

In late October, the snow elves—that is to say, employees—of the Zermatt Bergbahnen AG ski area in Switzerland fire up their secret weapon: a 30-ton snow-generating goliath known as Snowmaker. For 20 days straight it runs around the clock, churning out 1,900 tons of snow per day. That snow is then ferried up the mountain on vehicles with caterpillar tracks called “snow cats.”

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This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

But in the recent past, brute technological interventions were far from necessary. “Ten to 20 years ago you could always plan [on] the natural snowfall. In the middle of November, start of December there was a big snowfall every year,” says spokesperson Mathias Imoberdorf. “Now it’s unpredictable.”

The reason is climate change. Skiing was once an activity born of necessity—an efficient means of transport in snowy lands. Today, people ski for sport, fun, and fitness. But the Earth’s atmosphere has changed, turning once snowy slopes into muddy wastelands. As a result of global heating, the Earth no longer produces snow with the same regularity, so ski resorts are being forced to manufacture it instead. At one resort in the Swiss Alps, for example, snow depth during the winter is now roughly 40 percent lower on average than it was in the period from 1909 to 1988.

More than 60 percent of the world’s ski slopes are currently supplemented by snowmaking machines, according to industry analyst Laurent Vanat. “It is a must if you want to keep in business,” he says. But the process isn’t cheap. Market research firm IBISWorld says the US ski industry is now incurring “significant costs” from snowmaking.

Since 2002, Zermatt alone has invested more than £100 million in its snowmaking machines—roughly a quarter of its total expenditure for the period. Snowmaker, installed in 2008, is just the biggest weapon in its arsenal. The resort also has 1,200 snow guns and snow cannons peppered around slopes covering 140 kilometers.

But these smaller devices won’t be able to stand up to climate change forever. They work by spraying microscopic ice balls and water droplets into the cold air, which combine, freeze and then descend as snow—though this “snow” is formed of pellet-like particles, not flakes. Low outdoor temperatures are essential to the process. If it’s not cold enough—ideally around 2.5 degrees Celsius—the machines simply cease to work properly.

In a warming world, Zermatt has invested in Snowmaker because it can function even when it is warm outside. The behemoth creates a vacuum inside its large tank that encourages water to evaporate. With evaporation, energy is expended, which cools the water and helps to form tiny snow crystals. Snow can be taken to the highest, coldest parts of the resort once it is ready.

Still, most snowmakers do rely on cold weather. That’s why some resorts continue to buy more and more of them, so that they can pump out huge volumes of snow, quickly, during the ever-narrowing windows of subzero temperatures.

“It’s been busy,” admits Ian Jarrett, vice president at US-based HKD Snowmakers, which manufactures snowmaking machines. In the northeast US, where HKD is headquartered, skiing is a popular pastime—but one potentially hampered by dwindling snow in the early part of the season. Resorts say they have no choice but to turn to snowmakers because many of their customers choose to visit at traditional times, around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Automation has also helped to ensure that snow guns only run when it makes sense to do so. “The snow guns on the fully automated side can start and stop, and adjust themselves based on temperature,” explains Jarrett.

But about 900,000 liters of water are still needed to put a foot of snow on one acre of land. Acquiring this resource is another constant headache for resorts. Since the 2018–19 season, for example, Seven Springs ski resort in Pennsylvania has installed 1,500 meters of 50-centimeter diameter piping to bring water from a 681-million-liter uphill lake down to its snow-generating machines.

With thousands of snowmaking devices dotted around the world’s ski resorts gobbling energy, some have questioned how much they are themselves contributing to the very climatic changes that have altered natural snowfall. Elizabeth Burakowski at the University of New Hampshire says snowmaking operations that don’t rely on renewable energy risk becoming part of the problem.

“As a climate scientist and as a skier it’s something that irks me. It’s an adaptation strategy only, it’s not mitigation,” she says. Ski resorts should be pushing renewable energy, she argues. Many already rely heavily on it in some parts of the world. In Norway, for instance, almost 100 percent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower. And at Zermatt, large banks of solar panels supply around 70 percent of the power used by the ski resort and surrounding village.

Some resorts are making similar efforts. “We are doing things to offset our carbon footprint, we have solar panels, we replant trees,” says Andria Huskinson at Alta Ski Area in Utah. “That’s definitely something at the forefront.”

And yet the skiing industry as a whole has faced scrutiny because of the emissions associated with flights, road travel and the large hotels that host holidaymakers. A return flight from London to Geneva, for example, pumps the equivalent of 0.24 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The energy expended on snowmaking only accounts for a few percent of the total footprint of the ski industry, says Michael Rothleitner at Schneezentrum Tirol, a Swiss firm that researches new ways to make snow product and management more efficient.

However, he thinks snowmaking should be as efficient as possible. Rothleitner and his colleagues are involved in an EU-funded project called PROSNOW, which aims to develop fine-grained weather prediction systems that more accurately forecast snowfall and determine when snowmaking machines really need to be activated.

“Our society has to work on climate change in every part of our lives—so also winter tourism,” says Rothleitner. One of the innovations he is working on is a special device that creates a plasma, or charged environment, in which the negatively charged oxygen atom in a water molecule orientates itself towards the plasma. The idea is that if the water molecules all face the same direction, they become uniform and therefore freeze more efficiently. “We could save a lot of energy we use nowadays for the cooling of water,” he explains.

With warming temperatures, however, snow guns may one day be all but useless to ski resorts. Trygve Eikevik at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology is working on an alternative technology. It involves refrigerating the water rather than relying on outdoor cold air to complete the process of making snow, so that snowmaking may continue even when conditions aren’t ideal.

Such a machine would use “fifty to one hundred times” as much energy as a traditional snowmaking machine, admits Eikevik. However, his plan is to harvest heat from the devices so that it can be used to warm nearby buildings. “If I’m able to use all the heat, I have the snow for free,” argues Eikevik. He plans to build his first prototype in the coming months.

Whatever the approach, the search for snowmaking technologies that lower rather than raise our carbon footprint is urgent. The loss of ice in mountain regions is affecting people’s livelihoods, depriving communities of water and harming wildlife habitats. The ski industry itself is being sorely tested by the climate crisis, says Laurent Vanat—but there is still fierce competition between resorts whose customers are notoriously demanding.

“They want to have perfect slopes,” he says. Given what is now known about climate change, the onus is on the industry to step up and take things seriously, says Robert Kaspar at Seeburg Castle University in Salzburg.

“Each company should be looking at how to make snowmaking as energy efficient as possible,” he says. It’s a bitter symbol of the struggle humanity faces—luxury ski resorts battling to keep snow on mountainsides and manage their energy budget. All the while, the planet warms, threatening to melt those slopes away.

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

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