Artificial Snow: Ski Industry Savior or Environmental Degrader?
By TCI Ambassador Jack Reetz
On a warming planet, the winter sports industry has seen tremendous challenges thrown its way over the past few years. We have the ability to observe our surroundings as they change around us, and one of the most visibly altered surroundings are our mountains. My passion for skiing fueled a fire of doubt that I had regarding the mountains I love and how they practice producing artificial snow.
Personally, I’ve seen the ski industry change before my eyes as I’ve gotten older. When I was in middle school, I used to skip school on Halloween to go skiing. Flash forward to present day, and the mountains where I grew up skiing have only just started producing fake snow on-hill. As I’ve watched my favorite mountains’ opening days become progressively later in the year, I can’t help but wonder what can be done to mitigate this change.
High School Ski Racing
The winter sports industry in New England alone supports approximately 44,500 jobs. The industry generates between $2.6 and 2.7 billion in revenue annually. Warming temperatures have led to later starts and earlier finishes to the ski season. A shortened season means less time for employees to work. Naturally, this puts intense pressure on the snow production efforts of mountains in New England.
For skiers and snowboarders, less snow earlier in the season means seeing more ugly metal spires protruding from the sides of each ski trail. Snow scarcity has placed pressure on ski resorts to produce more snow. What did the ski industry do to make up for this loss? They purchased more snow machines to blast their trails throughout the season.
These snow machines produce artificial snow by firing air and water under pressure. For a snow machine to produce snow effectively, the external and internal temperature of the machine must be below freezing. However, increasingly warming temperatures have plagued New England in recent years. As of 2017, five of the six states in New England had increased their annual average temperature by over 3 degrees. With warming weather, the opportunity to produce snow early in the season is dwindling.
THE 411 ON ARTIFICIAL SNOW PRODUCTION
- Snow machines transfer water from the mountain base, and convert the water into snow to be blasted on trails
- A massive amount of water and energy goes into artificial snow production
- 95 million cubic meters of water and 600 gigawatt hours of energy to supply one single hectare of skiable snow
- This costs ski resorts over $120,000 per hectare
- Per The World Wildlife Foundation and Political Geography Professor Marco Grasso
- It costs an additional $5,000-$6,000 to purchase and fully equip an on-mountain snow machine
- Artificial snow has a very high density and concentration of water compared to that of natural snow
- This means there’s lower thermal insulation between the atmosphere and soil when artificial snow lays on the ground
- This causes the soil beneath the artificial snow to freeze, which prevents oxygen flow and essentially kills all life below the ground
- Snow machines contribute to pollution as well:
- Noise pollution produced by the snow-guns themselves
- Air pollution from the trucks used to transport the machines up the mountain
- Pollutive additives in the fake snow damage all kinds of mountain ecosystems
How Can I get involved?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how the future of your winters are affected by climate change. In a world where it seems that every ounce of information is at the tip of our fingers, it’s important to decipher between the false and the facts. Educate yourself by doing research on how climate change impacts what’s most importantly in your life.
For me, skiing sparked this interest. My awareness of climate change and the loss of snow on the mountains I love is what pushed me to want to make a difference. Do your research, sign petitions, make calls to local government offices, and spread your influence. There are various organizations, mountains, and political parties fighting for more sustainable on-mountain practices.
The 2026 Winter Olympics, for instance, started a “zero impact Olympics” campaign.. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recognized the importance of our changing planet, and vowed to limit their carbon footprint to net zero emissions. Anybody can follow the IOC as they attempt to limit their environmental impact in the coming Winter games. The committee will be updating their Sustainability Pre-Games Report regularly, and provides public access to the document.
As an ambassador at The Climate Initiative, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with experts on this matter. For instance, TCI hosted a webinar titled “Our changing Winters” with the organization Protect Our Winters (POW) and Sugarloaf Mountain. POW is a non-profit that focuses on legislation regarding sustainability in the winter sports industry. As part of the crossover webinar that TCI hosted with POW, I was able to talk to the Sustainability Coordinator at Sugarloaf. As a Mainer, a skier, and a green business student, this was a very eye opening experience.
My passion for skiing became so much more intense when I realized that I could positively impact the industry. I was able to learn what local mountains are doing to mitigate climate change day-by-day, and long term. I highly recommend anybody interested in the winter sports industry or climate change in general to look into POW.
Check out the TOC report, POW’s website, and additional resources for information regarding artificial snow production below!