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It can be incredibly depressing to look at the weather forecast before a big winter ski trip and see the disappointing lack of snow forecast during your stay at a resort.
This is not necessarily a reason for canceling a trip. Many resorts, especially the larger ones, have snowmaking equipment that can keep the slopes fresh even if Mother Nature isn’t cooperating. Skiing on artificial snow can be just as fun and your vacation will continue as planned.
Benefits of snowmaking in ski resorts
Artificial snow allows ski resorts to open earlier and close later. Before these opportunities became widespread, resorts followed the weather forecast and opened and closed based on the predicted amount of snow and the time it was due to fall.
During periods when there was little snowfall, this meant that there would be little skiing. However, these days, technology allows skiers to enjoy more stable and sometimes longer seasons despite the challenges of global warming.
Making snow can be a kind of insurance policy for resorts, and every year it backs up ticket prices as visitors can depend on whether the resort stays open. Nearly 90% of resorts have some form of artificial snow on their property, with most popular resorts able to cover all of their pistes.
Some resorts have an uncertain future, even with the possibility of artificial snow. It is predicted that the amount of snow will decrease significantly in the low-lying resorts every year, in contrast to the mountain resorts, which benefit from higher altitude.
Artificial snow is not always the best solution, as it requires a lot of resources to work, and in the end, visitors will prefer real snow. There is nothing better than a day of fresh powder.
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How is artificial snow produced and distributed over the slope?
Surprisingly, the process of creating artificial snow is similar to what happens in nature. With a little human help, the snow is similarly formed and spread up and down the slopes by snowplows for complete coverage.
Snow guns (also known as snow cannons or snow cannons) release tiny droplets of water into the cold air, which then freeze on contact to form snow. This snow then slowly falls onto the slopes, covering the slopes with what appears to be natural snow that some casual skiers may not even be able to distinguish from the real thing.
Once the water rises high into the sky, it can spread over the slopes. At many resorts, these machines are designed to cover many sections of piste, allowing them to achieve full coverage.
Sometimes snow cats distribute a pile of snow so that the coverage is uniform throughout the track. This is a process that may require the work of many people at the same time to achieve the final results. Not all automatic and skilled workers are needed to get the job done.
The next time you’re skiing on a day without snow, express your gratitude to the people who keep the resort running. There is science behind the operation and a significant amount of work is required to keep guests happy and able to ski every winter.
Is artificial snow always the solution?
Unfortunately, the process of making artificial snow only works in fairly cold weather. The ideal temperature is 28°F (-2°C) or lower for best snow texture and durability. If it gets too warm, it won’t stick and could potentially melt.
When the weather is not favorable because it is too warm, snowmaking does not work either. Resorts cannot rely on these machines unless the weather gets cold enough. As climate change becomes a very real influencing factor, this is becoming more and more of a problem.
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These snow machines also use a lot of power and energy, which is not always the ideal solution for small businesses like family resorts. With energy costs rising, there is a real benefit to using machines to increase the profitability of a resort. There is also a stronger push to become greener and integrate more sustainable practices.
If the area is affected by drought, this can also affect the ability to make snow. After all, water is the most important element in the formation of artificial snow. If water is scarce, resorts may be forced to close early for the season or reopen later this year.
This may be of particular concern in California resorts where drought is more common. Many visitors don’t know everything that goes into making snow, and it’s actually a year-round commitment.
As soon as one season ends, there is already a lot to start preparing for the next season. You should always keep a close eye on the weather and precipitation during the summer months, as this directly affects the possibility of snow formation in the winter.
What happens when ski resorts don’t have snow making equipment?
It’s no secret that snowmaking is an expensive operation, and its setup and operation are rather complicated. As for smaller ski runs, perhaps run by a family rather than a company, they could be forced to shut down if their ticket sales continue to decline.
Ski slopes that don’t have the facilities that places like Vail resorts have often fail to invest in snowmaking. Inevitably, paying customers will drive to resorts where you can ski all season long, not just here and there.
This is a sad reality and is one of the reasons the big resorts have become such a dominant force. They are the ones who can spend hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars on such powerful equipment to keep their resorts running smoothly.
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As temperatures around the world continue to rise, snowmaking may not always be a viable solution. Time will tell how resorts handle this and whether shorter seasons become the norm.
Skiing cannot always be guaranteed as several different factors must match for snowmaking to work. In years when natural snowfall is above average, skiers often flock to the mountains to enjoy this increasingly rare occurrence.
How will climate change continue to affect ski operations?
In a trend that has already begun, ski resorts are struggling to cope with above-average winter temperatures. At a resort in France, they were forced to close the pistes midway through the season due to warmer times that prevented skiers from safely enjoying the pistes.
This is not just one bad year, but rather a trend that is predicted to get worse every year into the future. There are still spells of average to above average snowfall and consistently low temperatures, but they are becoming less consistent and less reliable.
If ski resorts start to close in the middle of winter, fewer people will come to visit. When this happens, the resorts will lose money and inevitably some will be forced to close due to lack of funds and the inability to manage the resort on such a scale.
It will also affect the local ski villages, which depend on a reliable tourist flow and the economic growth that these visitors bring with them every year. These weather fluctuations are a wake-up call for the future of skiing.
Skiing in a resort without snowfall does not seem possible, but it is. In today’s world, there are many advances in artificial snowmaking that allow resorts to stay open at all times and combat the complex effects of climate change.
Many resorts have invested in a major snowmaking operation that powder coats pistes even when there has been less natural snow this season. Many skiers may not even realize that they are skiing on artificial material, as it reacts to skis and snowboards in much the same way.
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