DENVER (AP) — The sight can be troubling during a severe drought as snow cannons lined up on a mountainside blast precious crystal flakes on a ski run while the rest of the land gets thirsty.
Snow cover in the western US has decreased by about 20% over the past century, making artificial snow more important every year to reopen ski resorts and fuel the economy of ski towns as they move into an uncertain future.
As the effects of drought and climate change increasingly take their toll, the ski industry has invested millions of dollars in more efficient snowmaking systems amid questions about whether the practice is a smart use of energy and water.
“There are consequences. They are sad. We’d rather it didn’t snow,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. “But our regional economy and the economy of all ski towns depend on the work of your ski resort. 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 National Ski Resorts Association in Colorado, about 87% of the trade group’s 337 U.S. alpine resorts have snow production capabilities.
Many resorts take their water from nearby streams or reservoirs and typically use compressed air and electricity to blow snow into piles on slopes when it’s cold. These piles are then laid into a base layer that allows resorts to open at the start of winter and stay open until spring.
An analysis of most ski resorts in Colorado found that snowfall diverts about 1.5 billion gallons (6.8 billion liters) of water per year from the state, said Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Water Division. This is enough to fill about 2,200 Olympic pools.
That sounds like a lot, but Rein said snowmaking accounts for less than a tenth of 1% of the state’s water diversion, while agriculture takes about 85%. At the same time, about 80% of the water used for snowmaking is returned to the catchment when snow melts in spring.
Snowmaking is recognized by the courts as a “beneficial use” in Colorado, whose agency regulates the process, Rain said. “It’s part of our tourism, part of what we do in Colorado.”
But Patrick Belmont, professor and head of watershed science at the University of Utah, said it’s important to note that snowmaking uses a lot of energy and a lot of water is lost through evaporation and sublimation.
“This is important, especially in a place where we initially do not have much water. … Every drop of water matters,” he said.
Belmont, an avid skier who recently published a wide-ranging study on artificial snow and climate change, is also concerned that artificial snow, which is denser and melts later than real snow, could be affecting river currents.
“There are a lot of fish that pick up signals about things like when to spawn or when to do different things in their lives depending on how the currents are going up or down. So we are changing these types of natural signals for some of these organisms,” he said.
Ski resorts have made huge strides in becoming more efficient and environmentally friendly, said Aspen Skiing Company’s Schendler. But he also recalled a time when they often didn’t pay much attention to weather forecasts, only to see the fruits of their labor melt in the warm afternoon sun.
“One of the ways the industry got smarter was they said, ‘Look, we’re not going to make snow unless it’s cold and it’s not predicted to stay cold,'” he said. “It sounds silly and analog, but this industry has historically been very analog.”
Many resorts have also invested heavily in upgrading their snowmaking systems in recent years. Some have dug storage ponds to collect water in the spring when it is plentiful, while some are considering using treated wastewater.
Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which owns 37 ski resorts in the US, Canada and Australia, announced during its December earnings announcement that it will invest $3.6 million in its sustainability efforts this year, including improving the energy efficiency of its snowmaking operations.
Over the past few years, the company has upgraded more than 400 snow guns at its resorts to throw more snow with less energy in less time. Meanwhile, Breckenridge, which is owned by Vail Resorts and is one of the country’s largest and most popular ski resorts, is getting 110 efficient snow cannons.
“If I can make as much snow as we need in a third of the time, that’s a huge energy saving. That’s a huge labor savings,” said Kate Schifani, snowmaking manager at Vail Mountain Resort in Colorado.
Modern Vail snow guns can regulate the water supply and automatically turn off when the weather gets too warm—a major upgrade from older technology that required workers to monitor the temperature and manually turn off the system.
In addition to more efficient use of water, ski resorts use more renewable energy to power snow cannons, which account for about 20% of a typical resort’s energy consumption.
The National Ski Resorts Association’s 10-year Climate Challenge program encourages resorts to inventory and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and advocates for climate change legislation.
Since its inception, the voluntary program has reduced emissions by about 129,300 tons (117,300 metric tons), according to the group. Participating resorts have also purchased renewable energy, resulting in an additional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 242,500 tons (220,000 metric tons). This is negligible compared to the roughly 6 billion tons (5.4 billion metric tons) of greenhouse gases produced in the US in 2021, totaling about 32 minutes of carbon emissions in the country, according to the independent Rhodium Group.
But advocates say this is just the beginning.
“We can do what we can in our own operations, but if there is a future for outdoor recreation and humanity in general, we will need every possible solution,” said Adrienne Saia. Isaac, NSAA representative. “We have to make changes now.”
Schendler, who warns that the ski industry may not be viable after 2050, agrees.
“The industry has historically responded to climate change by saying, ‘We’re going to clean up our facilities, we’re going to have good snowmaking, and we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint,'” he said. “It’s awesome, noble, moral and good for business, but it’s not a solution to a global problem.”
Associated Press video journalist Brittany Peterson of Vail and science writer Seth Borenstein of Kensington, Maryland contributed to this report.
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