It’s a simple meteorological process, but it’s surprisingly unpredictable.
The 2015–16 winter was the warmest on record, and that threw the whole system out of whack. California saw more snow than it had in a long time, but it saw rainstorms too. A few resorts in the East never opened for the season. It’s increasingly difficult to believe that winter won’t keep getting weirder—wetter in some places, hotter in others. For skiers, that means the Pacific Northwest might be sunny in February or the Rockies could be rainy in December.
“I think the ski industry is wide awake now,” says Elizabeth Burakowski, a fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “It knows this is a big issue that it needs to confront head on.”
The future of snow is up in the air. We know from the past few winters that there’s no new normal. The pendulum between a good season and a mediocre one swings hard and fast. And non-normal seasons will happen more frequently.
So how do we look forward to snow in a warmer, wetter, weirder future? The resorts are mobilizing. There are tarps stretched across glaciers in France’s Grands Montets, more-efficient snowmaking systems being installed every winter, a widespread push to reduce carbon footprints, and much more.
It’s bigger than skiing, of course. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the ski industry is the canary in the coal mine of climate change. “Skiers and winter athletes have valuable connections to young people and sports enthusiasts across this country,” McCarthy says. “They can help get people engaged.”
And meanwhile, to keep snow on the ground and keep skiers coming back, resorts have had to adapt. These dispatches from the field illustrate some of the good work being done—and what still needs to happen.
Heavenly, Calif.: A Digital Revolution
First thing in the morning, before he’s even left his house, Barrett Burghard, director of snow surfaces at Heavenly Ski Resort, checks his phone. He taps into the SmartSnow app, which was built by snow-gun company SMI, and opens a map of all the snowmaking machines on the mountain. From his phone he can check the temperature and humidity, turn up the water pressure, and turn guns on and off. It used to take a crew of snowmakers on a night shift snowmobiling around to check the hoses and adjust the guns. Now there’s an app for that.
The Heavenly snowmaking arsenal is one of the biggest in the business: 200 snow guns (90 of them fully automatic fan guns), 20,000 feet of pipe, and four pump houses, two each in California and Nevada. They have the capability to make snow on 73 percent of the ski hill, and they’re aimed to do it in the most targeted, technologically advanced way possible. But making snow, especially in warm, wet California, is a tricky alchemy. It makes sense only in a narrow temperature range, and it’s harder to make snow when it’s humid. So Heavenly’s trying to use weather monitoring and automation to its advantage.
In the past, snowmakers had to constantly travel around the hill, switching hoses and turning on guns. They relied on thermometers attached to the backs of trees to gauge how much water to blow. Heavenly still uses a fair number of old-school fan guns, but more and more it’s bringing in fully automated versions. Investing in the technology and making the system more data driven make the process less hands-on, more precise, and more efficient, too. Heavenly is making only as much snow as it needs and placing it in very specific places. It’s snowmaking gone surgical. “It’s just being more efficient and making the right amount of snow,” he says. “We don’t want to close our doors with four feet on the runs either.”
Burghard, who has made snow for 25 years, spends a lot of time considering the snow flake. What temperature and humidity make the best crystals? At what wind speed does it become inefficient to run guns? How long do you have to wait to run a snowcat over newly blown snow? Too soon, and the tiny bead of water inside each flake will burst, turning it all to ice. Too late and the morning crowds are cranky, vowing to go somewhere else next time. Snowmaking is finicky, and the variables can make a huge difference in the snow quality, which is why having the technology to know all of your variables, and then control for all those variables, is a boon.
Heavenly is looking to bring in additional technology to help. “This year we’re doing a demo thing called Snowsat, which measures the snow depth,” Burghard says. “It bounces a signal up to the satellite while you drive around with your snowcat, so
you can see how deep it is.” The software, which is put out by the Pisten Bully snowcat company, claims to cut snowmaking needs by 15 percent, conserving energy and cutting costs.
The system, the software, the digital feed that lets you turn on a gun from the comfort of your own home—none of it’s cheap. An automated snow gun can cost $40,000. And as snowmaking becomes more crucial to staying viable, it creates a schism between ski areas that choose to make the investment and those that don’t,
or can’t afford to. Heavenly is owned by Vail Resorts, which is known for deep pockets. “There’s a price tag on putting all this automation in. The infrastructure is expensive,” Burghard says. “A lot of places in the past have rolled the dice, but, as we’ve seen, it’s a big gamble not to invest.”
Heavenly’s system has allowed the resort to stay open in marginal, snow–free conditions. Over the past few seasons, when California has been in the grips of drought, it’s still been able to spin lifts when other ski areas closed, although Burghard says it had to make snow all last season, and it couldn’t cover all the runs because of temperature and weather constraints.
And as much as the machines help, they’re not a miracle cure; temperature is the ultimate driver. “Mother Nature can make snow at 34 degrees, but we can’t,” Burghard says.
Killington, Vt.: All Chips In
We're calling last year a throw-away year," says Jeff Temple, director of mountain operations at Vermont’s Killington Mountain. He’s joking, sort of. He says last winter was the worst one he can remember. Most of February was above freezing at the mountain. They got 76 inches of natural snow. Total.
But you can’t just write off a winter when you’re in the business of skiing, and despite Temple’s wryness—and the winter that wasn’t—Killington was spinning lifts in April,
a testament to the mountain’s creative and motivated snowmaking team.
The truth—the not very sexy truth—is that preserving winter, and making sure there’s snow to slide on in the future, isn’t a one-trick x. It takes a whole range of answers, from tiny ones, like making sure your snow guns
don’t leak, to big ones, like switching your operation to renewable energy. And Killington is doing all those things, or at least a lot of them, hoping to keep skiing going from November to April well into the future.
Looking from a big-picture standpoint, you have to reduce your carbon emissions. There’s a direct feedback loop between how much fuel we consume and how
warm the planet gets. A ski resort is an energy-intensive operation, and, Temple says, compressed air for snowmaking is one of the biggest consumers of energy. To offset that, Killington recently signed up to fuel part of its snowmaking program through solar energy. It’s not just snowmaking; the whole resort has incorporated renewables like methane from nearby cow farms, through a program called Cow Power. The problem, though, is a tragedy of the commons, in that it’s impossible to see the direct nancial or environmental effects of renewable energy. But it does make a big difference, especially if everyone does it. “I like going to resorts that are doing their part,” says NCAR’s Burakowski when asked what skiers can do to address climate change. “I think [Killington] is doing a great job reducing its carbon footprint and cutting costs that they spend on energy.”
On a smaller scale, it takes adapting your snowmaking system to be efficient. Over the past decade Killington has been switching over to low-energy snow guns, similar to the ones Heavenly uses. Temple says they make better snow at marginal temperatures, and they use significantly less energy because they need less air to operate. “Two years ago, when we invested in low-energy guns, we cut almost a billion cubic feet of air that year,” he says. “We do about five billion cubic feet of air a year. A true low-energy gun uses about five cubic feet per minute; the old high-energy ones use 400 to 600 cubic feet.”
The gear is only part of it. Once your setup is dialed, you have to watch the weather closely. Temple says his team is constantly checking the wet bulb temperature, which registers a combination of temperature and humidity, to see where they can blow snow. Then the snow you do make requires careful management. Temple’s team builds its snow surface like a seven-layer dip. Early in the season, if they get a window of cold-enough temperatures, they’ll bust out the low-energy guns, which tend to
make wetter, denser snow, to blow a solid base that ski edges won’t rip through down to the grass. Then they’ll bring in the low-energy guns to make a lighter, fluffier, carveable layer on top. The surface feel and how it skis are important to them. Those perfect layers can be hard to get because so much depends on the weather, but the team’s constantly trying, learning a lot along the way.
And as winter warms up all over the place, expectations will have to adjust. “People only talk about powder days. They don’t talk about how good it feels to put an edge into nice rm snow,” Temple says. “We need to get people talking about that.”
So despite the challenges, Killington is pressing on. It committed to hosting early-season World Cup races after Thanksgiving, the Eastern U.S.’s first since 1991. Temple says no one really wanted to host it, because it’s hard to promise enough snow to run a race that early in the season. Last season races were canceled in Finland, Germany, Croatia, and Austria because of lack of snow. “That’s a warm time of year worldwide these days. Nobody wants that early-season date,” he says. But Killington signed up because it’s con dent in its ability to put snow on the hill, to eke out a skiable surface from every bit of moisture and every night of low temperatures. Temple will see to that.
Arizona Snowbowl, Arizona: What the Water Gave Us
The problem at Arizona Snowbowl starts with the geology. The ski area, which opened in 1938, sits at 11,500 feet in the volcanic San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The igneous rock of the mountain doesn’t hold water. There are no streams or lakes, which means there’s nowhere to draw water for snowmaking.
“When the snow was great it was great, but when there was no snow it wouldn’t open,” says J.R. Murray, the mountain’s general manager. “We’d have ski seasons that were 20 days long and some where we got 400 inches. The difficulty is you can’t plan. You can’t hire and retain staff. So we needed snowmaking to stabilize things.”
Arid Arizona leads the nation in the use of recycled water, and in 2002 Snowbowl contracted with nearby Flagstaff to pump some in to make snow. Reclaimed,
or recycled, water is wastewater that’s been treated to remove impurities and pollutants. Flagstaff was already using reclaimed water, which is treated to a standard just below drinking water, to irrigate parks and golf courses, and much of that water wasn’t being used in the winter.
But the idea of bringing the recycled water to the mountains created a, shall we say, shitstorm. For the 13 tribes in the area, the San Francisco Peaks are holy for
a range of different reasons. They’re the western edge of the Navajo Nation and the home of the Kachina spirit for the Hopi. The tribes saw pumping effluent onto the mountain as sacrilege. And it was disrespectful to Mother Nature, who was the one deciding how much it should snow. A decadelong legal battle ensued. Tribal activists
held extensive protests. Diné member Klee Benally chained himself to a backhoe. He called the project cultural genocide.
But after years of protests, lawsuits, and environmental reviews, the ski area won the right to use the water in 2010. The U.S. Forest Service did an extensive environmental impact statement and concluded that the water, which is treated to a “class A” standard, wouldn’t damage the ecosystem. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality signed on to test and monitor the water, and the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on its use. The state legislature had to change the statutes governing reclaimed water to include snowmaking, but the move to make snow out of treated water eventually passed.
When Snowbowl got the go-ahead, it built a holding pond at the base of the mountain and a 14-mile pipeline from town, and it got access to 1.5 billion gallons of water a day—an amount that has been called wasteful by groups like Friends of Flagstaff’s Future. In December of 2012 Snowbowl became the first ski area in the country to use reclaimed water for snowmaking.
The idea of recycled water triggers an ick factor in a lot of people, but effectively all water on earth is recycled, just to different standards of cleanliness. Cities in California and Texas, where droughts have been getting worse, are treating wastewater for drinking, with no ill effects on health. The water Snowbowl pumps out of its snow guns is tested by both the federal government and the state, and they say it’s not a health risk. There’s still concern from environmental and tribal groups that some of the chemicals not included in the government tests, like endocrine disruptors, could cause ecological harm, but the authorities have repeatedly said there’s no risk. Like most manmade snow, it seeps back down into the aquifer, and snowmaking is considered a non-consumptive use.
It can be a tricky line to walk, culturally and environmentally—the tribal groups are still unhappy, and lawsuits continue to arise. But Arizona Snowbowl has set a standard for what could become a reality as reservoirs across the West shrink. Other places, like Soda Springs in California, are now starting to use recycled water. “It’s revolutionized the business. It’s stabilized our employee base,” Murray says. “To say it’s a game changer is an understatement.” ●