What Ski Resorts Do When There Is No Snow? Worrying Trend

by Alaina Johnson | Posted On: August 31st, 2022
snowmaking

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It can be incredibly disheartening to look at the weather forecast before your big winter ski trip and see a frustrating lack of snow forecast during your stay at the resort.

This isn’t necessarily a reason to cancel your trip. Many resorts, especially the larger ones, have snowmaking capabilities that can keep the slopes fresh even when mother nature doesn’t cooperate. Artificial snow can be just as fun to ski on, and your vacation will be able to continue as planned.

The Benefits of Snowmaking Capabilities at Ski Resorts

Artificial snow allows ski resorts to open earlier and close later. Before these capabilities were widespread, resorts would follow the weather forecast and open and close according to the amount of snow that was projected and when it was supposed to fall.

snowmaking at ski resort

During the periods where there wasn’t much snowfall, that meant that there wouldn’t be much skiing, either. However, these days technology has allowed skiers to enjoy more consistent and sometimes even longer seasons, despite the challenges of Global warming.

Snowmaking can be a sort of insurance policy for resorts, and it keeps tickets up every year since visitors can depend on the resort staying open. Nearly 90% of resorts have some form of snowmaking on their property, with most of the popular resorts able to cover all of their runs.

Some resorts have an uncertain future, even with snowmaking abilities. Low-lying resorts are projected to have significant decreases in snow each year, unlike their mountainous counterparts, who benefit from a higher elevation.

man walking in ski resort

Artificial snow isn’t always the optimal solution, as it takes a lot of resources to operate, and after all, visitors would prefer the real stuff at the end of the day. There’s nothing quite like a fresh powder day.

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How Is Artificial Snow Made and Spread On the Slope?

Perhaps surprisingly, the process for creating artificial snow is similar to what occurs in nature. With a bit of human help, the snow forms in a similar fashion and is spread up and down the slopes by snowploughs for full coverage.

Snowmakers (also known as Snow Canons or Snow Guns) blast tiny droplets of water into the cold air, which then freeze on contact, thus creating snow. This snow then slowly falls onto the trails, coating the slopes with a seemingly natural snow cover that some casual skiers may not even be able to differentiate from the real stuff.

Once the water is shot high into the sky, it’s able to spread down the slopes. Many resorts have these machines pointed to cover many areas of the trails, enabling them to reach full coverage.

Sometimes, snow cats will distribute a pile of snow so that the coverage is even along the piste. This is a process that can take many people working simultaneously to achieve the end results. It’s not all automatic and skilled workers are required to complete the job.

The next time you’re skiing down a run on a day with no snowfall, express gratitude to the people who keep the resort operating. There is a science behind the operation, and it takes a significant amount of work to ensure guests remain happy and able to ski the trails each winter.

Is Artificial Snow Always the Solution?

Unfortunately, the process of making artificial snow only works when the weather is cold enough. The ideal temperature is 28°F (-2°C) or lower for the best texture and staying power of the snow. If it gets too warm, it won’t stick as well and can potentially melt.

snowmaking solution

When the weather doesn’t cooperate by being too warm, snowmaking doesn’t work as well. Resorts can’t rely on these machines if the weather won’t get cold enough. As climate change becomes a very real impacting factor, this is becoming more and more of an issue.

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These snowmaking machines also use a great deal of power and energy, which isn’t always the ideal solution for smaller operations such as family-run resorts. With rising energy costs, there is a real risk-reward in using machines for resort profitability. There has also been a stronger push to become more eco-friendly and integrate more sustainable practices.

If an area has suffered from a drought, this can also affect the ability to make snow. After all, water is a crucial element in forming artificial snow. If there isn’t enough water availability, resorts may be forced to shut down for the season prematurely or open later in the year.

This can particularly be an issue of concern at the California resorts, as drought is more common. Many visitors don’t know all that goes into snowmaking, and it’s actually a year-round commitment.

snowmaking trail

As soon as one season ends, there is already plenty to begin preparing for the next season. A watchful eye must always be kept on the weather and the rainfall throughout the summer months as this directly impacts the ability to make snow in the winter.

What Happens When Ski Resorts Don’t Have Snowmaking Capabilities?

It’s no secret that snowmaking is an expensive operation and is quite the process to set up and operate. For the smaller ski runs that are perhaps run by a family instead of a company, they may be forced to stop operations if their ticket sales continuously decline.

Ski hills that don’t have the funds that places like the Vail resorts have often can’t invest in snowmaking. Inevitably, paying customers will travel to resorts that can offer skiing during the entire season and not just here and there.

This is an unfortunate reality and it’s one of the reasons why larger resorts have become such a dominant force. They’re the ones who can spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on such powerful machinery to keep their resorts running smoothly.

As the temperatures continue to rise around the world, snowmaking won’t always be a feasible solution. Time will tell how resorts manage this and whether or not shorter seasons become the norm.

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Skiing can’t always be guaranteed, as several different factors have to coincide for snowmaking to be operable. During years of above-average natural snowfall, skiers often flock to the mountains to enjoy this increasingly rare occurrence.

How Will Climate Change Continue to Impact Ski Operations?

ski resort without snow

In a trend that has already begun, ski resorts are struggling to handle above-average winter temperatures. At a resort in France, they were forced to close down the runs during the middle of the season due to warmer temps that prevented skiers from enjoying the runs safely.

This isn’t just a single bad year, but rather a trend that is predicted to worsen every year going forward. There are still times of average to above average snowfall and consistently cold temperatures, but they’re becoming less consistent and less dependable.

If ski resorts begin to close down during the middle of the winter, fewer people will travel far and wide to visit. When this happens, resorts will lose money, and inevitably, some will have to close down due to a lack of funds and an inability to operate the resort on such a large scale.

This will also have an impact on the local ski villages, which rely on the dependable tourism traffic and the economic boost that these visitors bring with them every year. These weather fluctuations are a worrisome sign for the future of skiing.

Conclusion

Skiing at a resort with no snowfall doesn’t sound like a possibility, but it is. In today’s modern world, there are plenty of snowmaking advances that allow resorts to stay open constantly and to fight the encompassing impacts of climate change.

Many resorts have invested in a large snowmaking operation that keeps the runs coated with powder, even when there has been a sub-par amount of natural snow that season. Many skiers may not even realize their skiing on the artificial stuff, as it reacts to skis and snowboards in much the same way.

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