The time has come to discuss a pressing issue in the realm of winter sports: the environmental impact of artificial snow production.
The first-ever national study exploring this topic has revealed that the process of developing artificial snow places a significant strain on our climate. Specifically, the energy needed to produce snow for yearly ski operations in Canada alone equals that consumed by nearly 17,000 households annually.
This study, which is the first of its kind, was conducted by experts from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and the University of Innsbruck, Austria.
Published in the journal Current Issues in Tourism, the research has revealed that the creation of an estimated 42 million cubic meters of machine-made snow in an average Canadian winter requires 130,095 tons CO2e. This level of carbon dioxide is comparable to what 155,141 acres of forest would sequester in one year.
The challenge is set to escalate as climate change advances. Future requirements for snowmaking will increase, leading to a surge in water and energy demands. This rise will occur even as average ski seasons continue to shorten in the coming decades.
As the researchers point out, a comprehensive solution to this problem requires cooperation. Ski operators, policymakers, environmental organizations, and even skiers themselves need to join forces. They should work together to establish and support policies and practices that “prioritize sustainability in addressing the challenges posed by climate change and its associated impacts on snowpack.”
Professor Daniel Scott, co-author of the study, emphasized this point: “Our results underscore the need to adopt a systems approach to ensure the long-term sustainability of ski tourism.”
He suggested that part of this approach should involve “embracing innovation and investing in energy-efficient snowmaking technologies, promoting water conservation measures, and accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources.”
“Snowmaking can actually help reduce total emissions from tourism when it enables millions of skiers to ski regionally instead of driving or flying to far off ski resorts or selecting another type of carbon intense holiday. Net-zero compatible ski holidays are already possible in destinations like Quebec and our study shows a vibrant and resilient future for ski tourism is possible,” said Professor Scott.
Canada is home to 237 ski areas that play a vital role in the country’s tourism sector. These areas see an average of 18.2 million skier visits annually, including 2.7 million international visits.
However, these statistics come with some implications. Current electrical grid carbon intensity shows that Canadian snowmaking uses approximately 478,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity each year. This usage results in 130,095 tons of associated CO2 emissions and requires an estimated 43.4 million cubic meters of water to produce over 42 million cubic meters of artificial snow.
With climate change having an increasing impact on the snowpack in ski areas worldwide, ski operators are increasingly leaning on snowmaking to maintain ski seasons and ensure visitor satisfaction. By 2050, the study estimates snowmaking requirements in Canada will jump between 55% and 97%, with water and energy requirements increasing proportionally.
But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Canada is beginning to enact much-needed decarbonization policies that could significantly decrease ski operations-related emissions.
Professor Scott expressed optimism, saying that “snowmaking emissions are expected to decline substantially, thanks to the ongoing efforts to decarbonize provincial electricity grids in alignment with current policy targets.”
To maintain a sustainable future for ski tourism, reassessment of emissions and water use will be necessary as climate change advances and decarbonization targets are pursued. In conclusion, this study offers an important first look at the environmental impacts of snowmaking and its potential for sustainable development.
However, there is still work to be done in this field. The researchers emphasize that while their study provides a vital foundation for understanding the impacts of snowmaking, it represents only the first step in what should be an ongoing examination of this issue.
Artificial snow production’s future sustainability will also need to be re-evaluated in conjunction with destination-level sustainable development strategies. As efforts to decarbonize continue and climate change progresses, the relationships between emissions, water use, and ski resort operation will undoubtedly evolve. Monitoring these changes and adjusting practices accordingly will be vital to preserving ski tourism’s long-term viability.
It’s important to remember that the world of winter tourism isn’t limited to just Canada. Globally, many countries have thriving ski industries that are grappling with similar issues. The findings of this study, while specific to Canada, offer insights that could be valuable to ski areas worldwide.
In other parts of the world where snowmaking is employed, such as in Europe or the United States, there may be similar or even higher levels of emissions and water usage. That’s why this study serves as a wake-up call for those in the ski industry globally to take action.
The findings lay bare a vital truth: the ski industry, like all sectors, has a part to play in the global effort to combat climate change. There is a need for more investment in renewable energy sources, energy-efficient snowmaking technologies, and water conservation measures.
Ultimately, the challenge of sustainable snowmaking is one piece of a much larger puzzle. Addressing climate change will require systemic changes across multiple sectors and scales, from local businesses to international policy. In the fight against climate change, every effort counts – and in the case of ski resorts, it could mean the difference between flourishing winter tourism and empty slopes.
To end on Professor Scott’s optimistic note, let us remember that “a vibrant and resilient future for ski tourism is possible.” As we navigate the challenges ahead, his words remind us that through innovation, collaboration, and commitment to sustainability, we can continue to enjoy our beloved winter pastimes while protecting the planet for future generations.
Artificial snowmaking is a process used primarily in the ski industry to supplement natural snowfall and ensure that ski resorts can operate consistently throughout the season. Here are the main aspects of artificial snowmaking that you might find interesting:
Snowmaking involves spraying a mist of water and pressurized air from snow cannons or snow guns. The cold outdoor air causes the water droplets to freeze into snow as they fall to the ground. The key to this process is that the water must be atomized – broken up into tiny droplets – to ensure that the water can freeze quickly and completely before it lands.
For snowmaking to be effective, the weather conditions need to be right, particularly in terms of temperature and humidity. While the specific conditions can vary, generally the temperature should be below freezing (0°C/32°F), and lower temperatures can improve the efficiency of snowmaking. However, snow can still be made at temperatures slightly above freezing if the humidity is low enough, a factor represented by the concept of “wet-bulb temperature.”
The primary pieces of equipment used in snowmaking are snow cannons or snow guns, water pumps, air compressors, and a network of pipes to deliver water and compressed air to the snow guns. Snow guns come in various designs, with fan guns and lance-style guns being common types.
Artificial snowmaking is energy-intensive and requires significant amounts of water, which can place a strain on local resources. Furthermore, depending on the source of the electricity used in the process, it can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, there is ongoing research into ways to make the process more sustainable, such as by improving the energy efficiency of snowmaking equipment and using renewable energy sources.
Ski resorts often rely on artificial snow to open earlier in the season, stay open later, and provide a more predictable and consistent skiing surface. In many regions, climate change is causing winters to be warmer and less predictable, which has increased the reliance on snowmaking.
Beyond the ski industry, artificial snow is sometimes used for other purposes, such as in film or TV productions, for winter events in regions where snow doesn’t naturally occur, or for scientific research and testing.
It’s worth noting that despite its benefits in ensuring a consistent skiing surface, artificial snow does have differences compared to natural snow. It’s typically denser and more durable, which can affect skiing conditions.