Rising temperatures force the use of man-made snow
Picturesque mountains, magnificent scenery and mounds of fresh, powdery snow is what one would expect of the host venue for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. While the mountains of Beijing, China, this year’s Winter Olympic Games host, have most of these key components, they fail to accumulate more than two inches of snow each winter season and typically only get one week of precipitation, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The site of downhill skiing and slalom, Yanqing, China, got one inch of snow last winter season—less than both Madrid, Spain and Paris, France. The 2022 Winter Olympics, which started on Feb. 4, will have to use anywhere from 49 million gallons to 500 million gallons of water to produce enough artificial snow to sustain the various events, according to The Guardian.
The process for choosing an Olympic host city starts when major cities make bids, and after certain cities’ bids are approved, auditors determine whether or not the city has the resources and infrastructure to host the games. A candidate city is chosen, they pay a $150,000 fee, and then construction begins. Beijing had the money and infrastructure to host the games, but the choosing process disregarded the fact that Beijing does not get snow and, instead, prioritized money and prestige, according to The Guardian.
And producing so much artificial snow can be a problem. Though water is a renewable resource, the use of artificial snow can cause ecological damages, such as harm to soil and erosion.
“There is environmental concern about creating reservoirs to pool the water necessary for creating the artificial snow,” middle school science teacher Scott Goetsch said. “The reservoirs cause environmental damage and also reduce water flowing downstream or infiltrating into the groundwater further exacerbating drought conditions.”
Beyond the Olympics, the use of fake snow is becoming more prevalent across the globe. A study in the Geophysical Research Letters found that the American ski season has shortened by 34 days from 1982 to 2016 because there has been less snowfall to support ski resorts. Because of global warming and climate change, many ski resorts in the Alps are being forced to use man-made snow in order to stay open. However, the cost of having a shortened ski season would outweigh the cost of producing man-made snow; the ski industry worldwide would lose around $1 billion without fake snow, according to the Protect Our Winters foundation.
“The current trend in climate change, which is quite difficult to read precisely because of this variability, means that we will certainly have more and more winters with less snow, and fewer and fewer very snowy winters,” Hugues Francois, a research engineer at the National Institute of Agricultural Research, said in an interview with Insider.
From a skier’s perspective, artificial snow can be noticeably different from real snow, as the fake snow can create a harder and icier surface. With the increasing use of man-made snow, many skiers are having to become more comfortable with skiing on a different surface.
“You can be left with a weird thin layer of fake snow if it isn’t groomed,” sophomore and ski racer Christopher Inglis said. “If you are skiing in a track as a part of a race course, the fake snow doesn’t hold up as well as it can create small ice chunks in the track.”
Steamboat, Colorado, where Inglis attended a mountain school, had trouble opening the resort on time because of a lack of snow. However, due to the La Niña weather cycle, the resort is almost fully open now, and does not need man-made snow. During the La Niña cycle, trade winds are stronger than normal, and winters in the southern U.S. are warmer while winters are colder in the north, according to the National Ocean Service. Each cycle lasts anywhere from nine to 12 months every two to seven years.
“This year, they opened a week later with only a couple runs open solely on man-made snow,” Inglis said. “We did have snowfall [in] late October but due to the hot temperatures, it melted. This has become prevalent [in] the last couple years. Some say the snow comes later because of the La Niña cycle.”
Sometimes global warming can actually cause increases in snowfall because warmer temperatures evaporate more moisture into the atmosphere thus causing more precipitation. However, in the long run, if the planet continues to warm, snowfall will decrease.
“The warmer the air is, the more it expands, so there is more room in it for moisture to evaporate. If you never cool the air, then you won’t be able to get precipitation out,” Goetsch said. “Especially with snowfall—you’ve got this big air, but it doesn’t get cold enough for it to snow; you’re not going to get the snow or it’s going to come out as rain, and [that causes] flash flooding.”
None of the sites of this Winter Olympics have accumulated any natural snow since the start of the games though they have had freezing temperatures from below six degrees to the mid-thirties, leaving Winter Olympians, who are used to very cold weather, freezing.
According to The Guardian, by 2050, only one of the 21 Winter Olympic pool of cities, Sapporo, Japan, will be cold enough to host the games because of rising greenhouse gas emissions.
“To have games in a site or region without snow is unsustainable,” Professor Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg in France, said in a story published by weatherprolive.com. “To create events without the primary resource it depends on is not only unsustainable, it’s irresponsible.”
The fake snow combined with freezing temperatures and high humidity on the mountains of Yanqing, China, has also posed challenges to the Olympic athletes; since the man-made snow is harder than natural snow, landing jumps can be more difficult for athletes who train on natural snow, according to CNN and Olympic commentators Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood. The future Winter Olympics, and winter sports in general, might rely on artificial snow completely, and as a result, the environment could suffer if safety precautions aren’t taken.
“These could be the most unsustainable Winter Olympics ever held,” said de Jong. “These mountains have virtually no natural snow.”