Origins: Ski Cannons And Artificial Snow

This article has just appeared on Line-S, the Ski Club’s student website. Written by Clem Gray, who’s been writing for the ski club the past two winters, below is her second piece of the season, part two of the ‘Origins of Skiing’ series.

Heard of ‘white gold’? It’s the latest phrase to describe snow, especially considering the last Alpine Decembers have sailed by with a mere spattering on the slopes. Snow is not only a product of nature, it’s also a multimillion dollar essential for the ski industry – without snow, there is no skiing. With the ski business in potential jeopardy, the importance of ‘snow sure’ resorts, and thus, the snow cannon becomes paramount.

Snow guns


Back in the 1949 Connecticut winter, snow engineering gained coverage when the owner of Mohawk Mountain trucked in 700 tons of ice and spread it across a slope. By March 1950, Wayne Pierce and Dave Richey figured that water propelled through below freezing air would create snowflakes. Using a garden hose, a 10-horsepower compressor and a spray gun nozzle, they fashioned the first snow gun. Now an essential fixture in ski resorts – gun nozzles are mounted high above the slopes, so as to give the water droplets time to freeze before they hit the ground. Nucleators (essentially dirt particles) speed the process up. Dropping bits of dust into pure water means it freezes as it helps to form the hexagonal array of a snowflake.

What’s the difference from real snow? Artificial snow doesn’t have elaborate dendrites, and thus, it compresses tightly together. Real snow is made up of icy crystals, artificial is made of icy droplets. It is wetter, more dense and since it’s got a higher water content than real snow, it freezes, which doesn’t create ideal skiing conditions.

Real snowflake dendrites


It improves the reliability of our resorts, but what about the environmental impact? First up, creating artificial snow consumes an enormous amount of energy and water. Added to this, due to global warming, we’ll become more dependent on artificial snow – currently, it’s used on 50% of the slopes in Austria. Take the Bavarian ski slopes – with just an increase of just 2 degrees celsius, 87 percent of slopes would no longer be classified as ‘snow reliable’ (meaning they have 30 cms of snow, at least 100 days a year). Worryingly, half of Alpine glacial ice has been lost since the 1850’s, but as the ski industry has exploded in popularity, not having snow is no longer an option. The cannons are just a stop gap – 500,000 gallons of water are needed per acre for snow making – it’s not a feasible long term solution. Plus, snowmelt as a fresh water supply is relied on by more than a billion people around the world.

Alpine Glacial Ice


Resorts must ensure they are snow sure, but the blatant consequences of climate change are undeniable. Skiing is still dependent on nature, regardless of our environmental meddling. Yet, the paradox remains; we can’t leave snowfall up to chance, hence the constant tussle with nature to ensure for the next winter season that the slopes remain white. At such a high price to the environment, how long can this facade continue?


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