February 18, 2022 3 min read
Making the most of the winter season, many people around the world from novices to Olympians are hitting the slopes for winter sports. Especially watching the Winter Olympics on TV, there seems to be an abundance of snow. However, the show in China for the Olympics is not real snow. In fact, this is the first year the Winter Games is essentially 100% dependent on artificial snow. This is not only an issue for the Olympics, but for other winter sport competitions and ski resorts as well. With climate change causing rising temperatures and warmer winters, it’s simply not snowing as much as it used to.
Although it looks the same, man made snow is fundamentally different from natural snow, and it is causing more challenges and injuries for athletes. Additionally, creating artificial snow uses an extensive amount of energy and water to produce, furthering the climate crisis.
How is artificial snow made?
Artificial snow is made from massive snow guns and snow machines. Water is blown through the nozzles which break up the water into extremely tiny droplets that then freeze. Traditionally, snow-making needed freezing temperatures in order to work, but with warming temperatures, new approaches are taking place. Fan-driven snow generators and cooling towers help to create the freezing temperatures for the fake snow. To produce enough snow for the Olympics (1.2 million cubic meters), new technology called the SnowFactory was used. According to Jordy Hendrikx, the director of the Snow and Avalanche Laboratory at Montana State University, said, “Think of it like a very sophisticated version of the ice maker in your refrigerator. But then on steroids.”
Why is man made snow dangerous for athletes?
Many athletes have expressed concerns about competing on artificial snow. Man made snow has a higher moisture content than natural snow making it more slick. A slicker surface allows skiers and snowboarders to pick up more speed which increases the risk of losing control. Hitting an icy patch on the slopes can cause a person to spin out of control and could slide into trees and fences.
Artificial snow is also icier than regular snow, so falling hurts more and can lead to painful injuries. Gus Schumacher, runner on the US cross country team said that “...show is super unforgiving. Like it’s really sharp crystals that don’t bind together that well.” Furthermore, Chris Grover, the head cross country coach for the US Ski Team stated that falling on artificial snow “can feel like falling on concrete” not like a fluffy snowbank. As a result, athletes are experiencing more frequent injuries including serious injuries like broken bones and punctured organs.
What are the environmental implications of fake snow?
Producing artificial snow requires a great amount of energy and water. For the Olympics this year, 49 million gallons of water was used. This is equivalent to one day’s worth of drinking water for nearly 100 million people. This is a lot of water to use when taking into consideration that the world is running out of freshwater.
Additionally, since generators are used to power the snow machines, fans, and cooling towers, this uses a high amount of energy, particularly fossil fuels. Fossil fuels create greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to global warming and diminishes the amounts of natural snow.
Although artificial snow is not toxic, The American Chemical Society expressed concerns over the widespread use of fake snow affecting natural water cycles as it is often made to include bacteria and surfactants. Human-made snow also melts slower than real snow, so this could impact normal water table levels and disrupt local biodiversity.
The challenges of climate change will continue to force the winter sports industry to use artificial snow when the planet cannot produce it. However the implications of creating and using man made snow are severe.
If you are planning your next ski trip or snowboarding adventure, be sure you wear the proper ski clothing such as ski socks and snowboard socks. If you are recovering from an injury, Pure Athlete can get you moving again sooner with sports medicine compression and support products. Stay safe and have fun on the slopes.