The science and the future of snowmaking in Utah ski resorts

UTAH (ABC4) – Although snow has arrived en masse over the past week, this year’s snowfall is still considered late. Several local ski resorts have been forced to push back opening dates due to lack of precipitation, and because of that, artificial snowmaking has become the lifeline for this year’s ski lift lines.

2021/22 is not the first year that local resorts have to rely on artificial snow to start the season, according to Chris Westover, director of operations at Snowbasin. Westover says he learned to expect this ebb and flow in snowfall during his 16 years at the station.

“At the start of the season, we tend not to rely on natural snowfall,” he says.

But according to Ben Abbott, assistant professor of plant and wildlife science at Brigham Young University, unpredictable natural snowfall hasn’t always been the norm along the Wasatch Front. He says that over the past 30 years, there has been a 20% drop in the average amount of snowfall in northern Utah. He acknowledges that this is not a steady drop but rather a trend, with years of above average snowfall – like the 2018/19 season – still sometimes.

“When I was a kid there was enough snow for ski resorts to operate year round and fall naturally,” he recalls. “We had much more reliable and abundant snowfall than today.”

Even with the storms this week, Abbott says, we’re still seeing a below-average year in terms of snowfall. This, he says, is directly linked to human-caused climate change.

“At least 35% and maybe up to 100% of the mega-drought we find ourselves in is caused by human disturbance of the climate,” he says.

The declining snowpack trend has driven the growth of the artificial snow industry, says Abbott. He remembers his teenage years working at Park City Mountain Resort as a lift operator and seeing the first snow machines appear in the mountains of Utah. He describes snowmaking at the time as a “niche activity” used sparingly to reinforce snow during dry spells or to lengthen the ski season.

Now, especially early in the season, it would be unusual not to see snow machines working at Utah resorts. According to Westover, Snowbasin begins producing snow in early November and the station typically runs the machines until New Years.

The snow cannons start to create powder at the top of the central Snowbasin gondola, gradually descending to the base area. Then they prioritize paving the main runs under the ski lifts with snow to ensure the lifts can operate until late spring.

“We open with a top down [approach] and traditionally this ski slope has been mostly snow-covered, ”says Westover. “Natural snowfall early in the season is so unpredictable and sporadic that we put all of our effort into making snow. “

Another benefit of making snow early in the season is better control over the quality of the powder, Westover says.

“When we produce snow, we can manipulate the amount of water that goes into the process and so we can produce heavier snow than what would typically fall from the sky,” he explains. “This allows us to create a base layer that is much harder and will withstand the volume of any type of weather event.”

Snow making, simply described, is a process involving compressed air and water. The 18ft tall snow cannons combine these two ingredients, and when released from the cannon, they strike the freezing air and transform into snow crystal. According to Westover, these guns can use between 30 and 100 gallons of water per minute, depending on how cold the mountain is.

The amount of water used is one of many environmental concerns in snowmaking, according to Abbott.

“Our ski resorts are located very high up in the watershed, so they’re usually not crossed by large rivers,” he says. “Sometimes they tap into municipal water sources, so they compete with cities that need water for their citizens.”

Creating snowfields where they were not before can affect the environment in other ways as well. Namely, changing natural snowmelt conditions can affect the region’s entire ecological community, according to Abbott.

“If you’ve added a lot of snow to an area that didn’t have it, you can change the snowmelt date from May to the end of July, which of course will affect the forest and the whole ecological community there. low, “he said.” This is a real concern as we put more and more pressure on these ecosystems, so we have to be very careful about protecting the pristine areas that we have. “

Artificial snow can also change the chemistry of snowmelt, which then seeps into groundwater and runoff, which can contribute to atmospheric deposition.

Westover also mentions the carbon footprint associated with the use of snowmobiles as an environmental concern.

But luckily, ski resorts are aware of these concerns and have put restrictions on the right to water to help mitigate the potential for adverse effects. Westover adds that there have been technological improvements to make energy efficient snow machines, in which Snowbasin is deeply invested.

“All the resorts have different water sources, as well as different restrictions on the amount of snow they are allowed to do,” says Alison Palmintere, director of communications at Ski Utah. “It will also depend from year to year.

Westover says Snowbasin has always been able to produce as much snow as needed while respecting its water rights. He also says that despite the decreasing snowpack trend, Snowbasin has not increased its artificial snow production. At most, he says, the resort’s snow production ranges between 10% and 15%.

But even though snow production has not increased much in recent years, Abbott is concerned about the viability of the practice.

Not only is snowmaking expensive – Westover says costs are rising every year – with temperatures continuing to show an upward trend, but it could also become increasingly difficult to operate snow machines. To make snow, the air outside the snow cannon must be below the freezing point, so the ejected water will surely freeze. Westover says the ideal temperature for this is around 28 degrees.

“You can’t create snow when the sun is shining. If the temperature is too high, then of course you can’t create artificial snow, ”says Abbott. “This has been one of the threats with climate change. Right now we have this man-made snow-making bandage that can work for a number of years, maybe a decade or two, but we’re making the transition to a world where it won’t work.

The reality of Abbott’s predictions may already be unfolding. According to Westover, Snowbasin had to delay its opening 17 days past the originally scheduled date.

“It was just too hot to snow, or we could only snow at higher elevations,” he says. “It was too hot in the base area so it certainly had a direct effect on our operations. “

But still, Palmintere says this type of season is not very unusual for the region, and – at least for now – the ski season will start as usual.

“The resorts are definitely blowing as much snow as they can and can in order to open up as much ground as possible,” she says. “It’s not unusual. 20 years ago, which was an Olympic year, we didn’t see a point of snow until December and ended up falling 100 inches in 100 hours, so it’s really changeable, it just depends on the year.

About Richard Chandler

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