Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Ski resort aims to make snowfall more efficient amid drought

DENVER ( Associated Press) — The scenery can be scorching during an extreme drought: Snow-capped guns on a hill destroy flakes of precious crystals on a ski run, while the rest of the ground becomes parched.

Snowpack in the US West has decreased by about 20% over the past century, making man-made snow more important each year to open ski resorts and boost ski town economies as they move into an uncertain future.

As the effects of drought and climate change increasingly hit home, the ski industry has invested millions of dollars in more efficient snowmaking systems, amid questions about whether the practice is a wise use of energy and water.

“The effects are there. They are regrettable. We will not have to make snow,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. “But our regional economy and the economies of all ski towns depend on the operation of your ski resort . And so it’s a necessary evil.”

Snowmaking has been around since at least the 1950s, but the practice became more widespread in the West after a severe drought in the late 1970s. According to the Colorado-based National Ski Area Association, about 87% of the 337 U.S. alpine resorts represent the trade group that has snowmaking capabilities.

Many resorts draw water from nearby streams or reservoirs and use compressed air and electricity to pile snow on the slopes, usually when it is cold. Those piles are then spread over a base layer that allows resorts to open in early winter and remain open through spring.

An analysis of most ski resorts in Colorado found that snowmaking diverts about 1.5 billion gallons (6.8 billion liters) of water per year in the state, said Kevin Wren, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. That’s enough to fill about 2,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It sounds like a lot, but Rein said snowmaking accounts for less than a tenth of the 1% of water diverted in the state, of which agriculture accounts for about 85%. In addition, about 80% of the water used to make ice is returned to the watershed when the snow melts in the spring.

Snowmaking is recognized by the courts as a “beneficial use” in Colorado, said Rein, whose agency controls the process. “It’s part of our tourism, it’s part of what we do in Colorado.”

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But Patrick Belmont, professor and head of the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University, said it’s important to note that a lot of energy is used during snowmaking, and a lot of water is lost through evaporation and sublimation. Is.

“It’s not insignificant, especially in a place where we don’t have a lot of water to begin with. … Every drop of water matters,” he said.

Belmont, an avid skier who recently published a comprehensive study on snowmaking and climate change, is also concerned that man-made snow, which thickens and melts later than the real thing, could be affecting stream flow. can.

“There are a lot of fish that take their cues for when to spawn or when to do different things in their lives based on how the flow is going up or down. That’s why we call those organisms For some of those types of natural signals are changing,” he said.

Schendler of Aspen Skiing Company said, “Ski resorts have made great strides in becoming more efficient and more environmentally friendly. But he also remembered a time when he often did not pay much attention to weather forecasts, only to see the fruits of his labor melt away in the hot afternoon sun.

“One way the industry got smart is, they said, ‘Look, we’re not going to make ice if it’s not cold and if there’s no forecast for it to stay cold,'” he said. “It sounds dumb and conforming, but this industry has historically been very consistent.”

Many resorts have also invested heavily in upgrading their snowmaking operations in recent years. Some have dug storage ponds to collect water in the spring, when it is plentiful, while others are eyeing the use of reclaimed wastewater.

Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which has 37 ski resorts in the US, Canada and Australia, announced a $3.6 million investment in its sustainability efforts this year during an earnings call in December, including making its snowmaking operations more energy efficient. is included.

Over the years, the company has upgraded more than 400 snow guns at its resorts to blast more snow with less energy in less time. Meanwhile, Breckenridge, which is owned by Vail Resorts and one of the largest and most popular ski areas in the country, is getting 110 efficient snow guns.

“If I can make all the snow I need in a third of the time, that’s a huge energy savings. It’s a huge labor savings,” said Kate Schiffani, snowmaking manager at Vail Mountain Resort in Colorado.

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Well’s modern snow gun can control water output and automatically shut down when the weather gets too hot—a major upgrade from older technology that required workers to monitor the temperature and shut down the system manually. is required to do.

In addition to using water more efficiently, ski areas are harnessing more renewable energy to power snow guns, which account for about 20% of a typical resort’s energy use.

The National Ski Area Association’s decade-old “Climate Challenge” program encourages resorts to inventory and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as advocate for legislation to combat climate change.

Since its inception, the voluntary program has cut emissions by about 129,300 tonnes (117,300 metric tons), according to the group. Participating resorts have also purchased renewable energy which is responsible for an additional reduction of approximately 242,500 tonnes (220,000 metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions. They are in small amounts compared to the estimated 6 billion tons (5.4 billion metric tons) of greenhouse gases the United States produced in 2021, according to the independent Rhodium Group – roughly 32 minutes of the nation’s carbon emissions.

But advocates say this is a start.

Adrienne Saya said, “We can do what we can in our actions, but if outdoor entertainment is going to have a future, and for humanity in general, we’re going to need all kinds of solutions.” Isaac, an NSAA spokesman. “We have to make a change now.”

Schendler, who cautions that the ski industry is not on track to be viable beyond 2050, agrees.

“The industry has historically responded to climate change by saying, ‘We’re going to clean up our operations, we’re going to do good snowmaking, and we’re going to cut our carbon footprint,'” he said. “It’s terrible and great and ethical and good business, but it’s not a solution to a global problem.”


Associated Press video journalist Brittany Peterson in Vail and science writer Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland contributed to this report.


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for its coverage of water and environmental policy. Associated Press is solely responsible for all content. For all of Associated Press’s environmental coverage, visit go to,


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