You Won’t Believe How Much Snow These Snow Machines Can Produce (Ski Science)

by Simon Knott | Published: December 22nd, 2022 |  Skiing Articles

Everyone has skied past the different snowmaking machines alongside the slopes but just how much snow can each of them produce?

A larger snow cannon with a fan can produce 600 m³ (35380 kg) of snow over a five-hour period. While a snow lance can produce approximately 90 m³ (4500 kg) of snow over the same period.

snow cannon

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snow making

Key Takeaway: From research over many years, ski resort owners have learned that for skiers, the reliability of the snow is one of the primary factors they consider when choosing their resort.

Further research shows, that with any vacation a big part of the satisfaction is looking forward to departure day. For a ski trip, if in the days running up to departure, the snow is looking thin on the ground, then the feelings of anticipation will quickly change to intense feelings of disappointment.

Ski resort owners are literally between a rock and a hard place. They appreciate how important it is to offer adequate snow but at the same time, they also battle each year with the warming effects of climate change.

snow production chart
Snowmaking MachineSnow ProductionDescription
Snow Cannon/Fan Gun600 m³ (35380 kg) over 5 hoursLarge snowmaking machine that operates from ground level. A circular casing houses a powerful fan that forces a constant stream of air out of the end of the cannon. Snow is created by combining water and compressed air under pressure to create snow nuclei, which are then atomized into snowflakes.
Snow Lance90 m³ (4500 kg) over 5 hoursSmaller snowmaking machine that produces snow naturally from the tip of the lance. Water and compressed air are forced out of a nipple, which atomizes the mixture and freezes it into crystals as it falls through the freezing air. Snow lances are often used to add to the existing snow layer along the edges of runs.

Artificial Snow

snowmaking solution

For many resorts, artificial snow (or technical snow as it’s more accurately described) has been a blessing. As climate change continues to alter skiing landscapes, ski resorts have turned to artificial snow to maintain their seasons and provide enough snow for visitors.

As the market for artificial snow has ballooned, so has the technology used in their performance. Now, snow machines make more and better quality snow, using less water and electricity, while the chemicals previously added to snow machine water have mostly become redundant.

The Evolution of Snow Machines

Snow Machines

The first snow machine was invented by accident by an American researcher in the 1940s. Working in a sub-zero wind tunnel he was assessing how sprayed water affected the icing of jet engines but instead discovered he had created a steady stream of snow.

The adoption of snow machines around the world varies considerably from country to country. This is partly down to climate change but also due to the considerable capital cost of extensive snowmaking equipment. Adoption varies from 39% in France to 87% across the United States and 90% in northern Italy.

How Is Artificial Snow Produced?

ski discipline

Advice: There are different machines for snowmaking, but they all operate on a similar principle, which mimics the way snow is naturally formed in the air. Tiny droplets of water are sprayed into the freezing, surrounding air and converted into snow crystals.

There are two types of snowmaking machines that are routinely used close to resort slopes:

The Snow Cannon or Fan Gun

snow cannon 1

These larger snowmaking machines usually operate from ground level. A circular casing houses a powerful fan, which forces a constant stream of air out of the end of the cannon. Around the exit rim of the cannon, there are a series of nucleators, which combine water and compressed air under pressure to create a stream of nuclides or snow nuclei.

At the same time, another series of jets atomize water into tiny droplets, which combine with the nuclides as they are forced through the air to create snowflakes.

Often AI is combined with the technology of the snow cannon, so they can automatically adjust the cannon settings, according to the changing weather, to keep snow production at its optimum. It is the combination of humidity and air temperature, which controls the droplet size used in the cannon.

The Snow Lance

Snow Lance

Snow lances are much smaller than snow cannons and the snow they produce falls naturally from the tip of the lance, rather than being blown by a fan. Lances vary in size up to 12 m.

They operate in a similar fashion to snow cannons, but they are simpler in construction. At the tip of the lance water and compressed air is forced out of a nipple, which atomizes the mixture and freezes it into crystals as it falls through the freezing air.

Snow lances are often situated along the edges of runs, where they can add to the existing snow layer.

How Does a Snowmaking System Work?

As snowmaking systems have developed more sophisticated controls, so they need to be tailor-made to the resort where they are going to be installed. Only the fans and lances are visible on the slopes, but behind the scenes, there is a complex setup of water pipes and an electricity supply.

Water supply ideally comes from a nearby reservoir or lake, or the mains supply if this isn’t practical. There are a growing number of resorts that use hydroelectric and solar power to create electricity for their snowmaking capability.

Key Takeaway: Increasingly, snowmaking machines have a data connection to central control, so that a resort’s entire snowmaking capability can be controlled from one site.

Increasing automation means machines can be left to both switch on and off automatically, as well as adjust nozzle and fan settings.

How Much Snow Does a Snowmaking Machine Make?

snow maker

In general, a snow cannon has a much larger throughput of water as well as a large fan, compared to a snow lance. Consequently, snow cannons are relied on to produce higher volumes of snow, which are spread over a larger area by the fan.

Snow lances don’t have a fan to disperse the snow and so it falls more locally around the base of the lance. The water supply to the snow lance is much smaller than the snow cannon and consequently, the lance produces less snow.

The quantity of snow that both snow cannons and snow lances make is dependent on several environmental factors. One of the biggest variations is caused by warmer air temperatures. If the air temperature is too high, the flow of water through the snow cannon must be restricted, which results in much less snow being produced.

TechnoAlpin AG based in Bolzano near the Italian Alps produces The TR10. One of the biggest snow cannons on the market, which when operating at ideal conditions can produce 10 truckloads of snow per hour.

An average truckload is 420 ft.³, so 10 truckloads would be 4200 ft.³ or 120 m³. So, if the cannon was left running for five hours it could produce a total of 21,000 ft.³ (78000 lbs) or 600 m³ (35380 kg) of snow.

The snow production capacity for an average snow lance is 18 m³ hour, so in a 5-hour period, a snow lance could produce 90 m³ (4500 kg) of snow.

Artificial snow contains a higher water content than natural snow and so its density is appreciably higher. For example, a cubic meter of natural snow weighs approximately 400 kg while the same volume of artificial snow weighs approximately 800 kg.