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Snow guns are keeping ski parks open despite climate change. Will their own carbon footprint crush these efforts?

An artificial snow machine cannon making snowflakes from water

An artificial snow machine cannon making snowflakes from water Getty Images/iStockphoto

I. Ready, Aim, Fire

I spent much of my early twenties cross-country skiing in a T-shirt, with no gloves on. In Boston, the nearby ocean kept our winter air mild and muggy. Each snowfall rarely lasted more than a few weeks before descending to the sewers as runny slush.

My team practiced on a golf course in the suburbs, on manmade snow produced by snow-gun technology: heavy machinery that feeds pressurized water into large cannons that break it up into particles, blast-freeze it, then blow it into the air. In doing so, the course could stockpile enough snow to supplement nature’s paltry offerings and make skiing available most days of the winter.

The manmade snow was a miracle, allowing us to ski enough to have a fair fight against teams from Maine or upstate New York. But after a month or so, I got sick of the inescapable churning sounds right by the trail, the horizontal spray of snow into my face. “Don’t eat the snow, it’s made of water from the Charles,” I was once told, calling to mind the oily bits and goose droppings I’d seen bobbing in the river.

I grew up skiing the city trails in Duluth and Grand Marais, and it felt like Boston was making me learn a new sport: a post-apocalyptic cross-country designed for a time when the wooded trails are gone and only windswept golf courses remain. Upon returning to the Midwest, I found the landscape is changing nationwide, including right here in Minnesota, where manmade snow production was accelerated for March’s skiing World Cup (which ended up being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with many other local recreational ski seasons).

From Minneapolis to the Rocky Mountains, climate change is coming for snow. Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency and University of Colorado-Boulder have teamed up to examine models of the future of ski conditions, and the results are grim. Using a sample of five climate models, two emission scenarios (moderate and high), and simulations of natural snow accumulation at almost 250 locations across the contiguous United States, both moderate- and high-emission scenarios indicated that winter could be cut short by more than half as soon as 2050, wreaking havoc on the ski tourism industry.

As with most climate-disaster scenarios, things look worse on the coasts. As Cameron Wobus, a hydrology research scientist working with the EPA, told reporters at climate.gov: “By the end of the century, people will not be skiing in New England.”

II. The New Normal

“I think most skiers agree and see the writing on the wall, if you will, that our natural snow is going to be less reliable,” says Matt Ryan, a representative of the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club. “If we really want to continue to ski, we’re going to need to have machine-made snow.” Ryan was involved in organizing and fundraising for a ski-based community center on Grand Avenue in Duluth that’s accessible by public transit and provides group lessons, communal activities, gear rentals, and snowmaking, to a wider demographic of skiers.

With seasons already shortening, communities are increasingly relying on manmade snow. In Minnesota, active snowmaking for cross-country skiers is happening at Theodore Wirth Park (Golden Valley), the Vasaloppet Trails (Mora), Elm Creek Park Reserve (Maple Grove), Spirit Mountain (Duluth), and Hyland Park Reserve (Bloomington), with development at other parks.

Over decades as a chief of course and a technical delegate at events ranging from the Salt Lake City Olympics to the FIS Ski World Cup, Duluth’s Gary Larson has watched ski seasons shrink. “It seems like when I was up at Giants Ridge, we were always open by Thanksgiving,” he says. “I’d say it was a very odd year when we weren’t open. And now it seems like you’re pushing your luck to be open at Thanksgiving.”

When the season itself is shorter, customer volume is reduced, and employees’ hours are cut—there are massive financial and staffing implications incentivizing organizations to produce snow for their facilities. According to advocacy group Protect Our Winters, reduced winter sports participation during recent low-snow years typically costs 17,400 jobs, and decreased value added to the American economy by $1 billion.

For ski facilities in rural areas, choosing between the expense of snowmaking and the ghost town of snowless trails is a life-and-death balancing act.

“Unlike in the Cities where you have all the population, there’s probably 100 residents [of the Cable, Wisconsin area] that ski who are going to pay for the pass, so that means you’re relying on being a tourist destination,” says Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner race in Wisconsin. “So as an organization, we say, ‘What are our other revenue streams?’ In our case it’s the [Birkebeiner] race.”

After the American Birkebeiner was canceled in 2017 due to lack of snow, staff leapt to make changes, from snowmaking to a year-round brand expansion. “We had a really great dialogue on, OK, as an organization and as a leader in the ski community, perhaps we need to do more than just put on a single event, and actually be a year-round lifestyle that skiing is a part of,” Popp says.

III. Resource Roundup

The water required for snowmaking is no light flurry. According to Snow Makers, Inc., a popular snow-gun manufacturer used by Spirit Mountain, it takes 20,000 cubic feet of snow to cover an area 200 feet by 200 feet. That requires 74,600 gallons of water. In initial estimates, the Nordic area alone at Spirit Mountain requires two million gallons of water to be snowed in, which Larson says is a “minor part” of the amount needed to cover Spirit’s alpine facilities.

Luckily, the Grand Avenue project’s location, nestled at the base of the Spirit Mountain alpine facility, allows it to share resources and avoid unnecessary expense. Ryan explains, “We’re taking advantage of Spirit’s existing snowmaking infrastructure, parking lot, and Grand Avenue chalet.”

Skiing itself has become a more fuel-intensive activity. “Our cross-country skiing has evolved a long way from wood skis and knickers on a narrow path through the woods. It’s about a diesel-powered PistenBully [brand machine] grooming a highway through the woods so we can have perfect corduroy [trail] and deep, solid classic tracks. That’s what we all want, and we should be aware that the desire to have a manicured trail contributes to climate change.”

One energy-saving step is to use untreated water not fit for human consumption, a common practice for golf courses and soccer fields in the U.S. as well as at resorts in Europe and Australia. The Grand Avenue Nordic Center uses Saint Louis River water, in conjunction with Spirit Mountain, which switched from its previous source: city tap water. “And then, because Spirit Mountain is in the St. Louis River drainage, in theory all the water used in snowmaking eventually gets back to the river,” Larson explains.

But there are concerns with wastewater use. It could contain hard-to-trace pharmaceutical remnants, and industrialization might cut into natural resources, threatening an existing way of life. (For example: the decades-long battle over sacred land between the Hopi indigenous nation and the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.) The American Birkebeiner facility had trouble securing enough water in the first place—Popp says that even high-capacity wells requiring state approval could not keep up with snowmaking demands, necessitating resurrection of an old reservoir pond for future years.

Even making compressed air is an energy-intensive process, though the efficiency of snowmakers has greatly improved since their origin decades ago. Early snow guns required between 450 to 1,000 cubic feet per meter of snow; newer ones take more like 20 to 140 CFM.

City and state regulations can help nudge organizers in a more conscious direction. Larson cites guidance from Duluth as an important guide in addressing environmental concerns. “From the beginning, the design we had here at Grand Avenue is LED [lights], which have a much smaller footprint and carbon cost. Also, the system was designed to be on motion detectors so they dim down if no one is on the trail… the city went ahead and put solar panels in for the lighting at Lester [ski trail] and that certainly might be something that we could work towards with the city at Spirit too.”

Duluth also provided helpful guidance about reducing noise pollution. “We have some neighbors that we had to be concerned with for following the state regulations for the noise level because primarily it’s colder at night and so snowmaking takes place in those proper temperatures, and you want to make snow as long as you can, because shutting down the system is really time-consuming. We did actually end up getting a snow gun that’s called a ‘Silent,’ it has acoustic shrouding on it so it’s less noisy.”

IV. Carbon, Climate, and Commitment

Despite these efforts, manmade snow is only an option if the air is less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit, making it irrelevant in a future where Minnesota winter temperatures drift into the 40s and 50s.

If trail managers are having conversations about climate change that lead to buying snowmaking equipment, they must acknowledge the reality of continually climbing temperatures. For now, the Minnesota organizations employing snowmaking have to decide between haphazard use of natural resources, possibly contributing to temperature increases, or looking for more environmentally sound practices: a snow gun that requires less energy, or investing in carbon offsets for the energy used on one’s facility or weather prediction systems like the European Union’s PROSNOW project to reduce excess snowmaking.

Minnesota programs are weighing a number of other factors alongside snowmaking expense, such as equity initiatives. Describing Duluth XC’s goals for the Grand Avenue Nordic Center, Ryan excitedly lists “learn-to-ski days, free lessons, free rentals with a sponsorship, to get people out there on snow... the beauty of Grand Avenue is that you can work with bus lines and community centers to get people there.”

Ryan adds, “We want to enhance and continue the legacy of cross-country skiing in Duluth, and a lot of that has to do with getting opportunities for more people to be able to ski.”

When it comes to the ski community’s own carbon footprint, Larson acknowledges that guidance and regulations may be necessary, even in well-intentioned communities. “I think cross country skiers generally, across the board, care about climate change. Like I say, a cross-country trail parking lot has a lot of Priuses.

“I think, primarily, they want to be able to ski, so snowmaking was the first priority,” he continues. “When we started the planning, I don’t think there were necessarily a lot of good examples of offsets... I think it’s going to be voluntary first, but let’s hope that we are going to have some type of regulation that requires that to happen, similar to the power companies.”

Across state lines, the Birkebeiner staff is confident the ski community will make good choices. “Skiers are really smart, and they want to do what’s right, and they will spend money and invest in things they know are the right thing to do,” Popp explains. “As much as we love skiing, and as much as we love being active on snow, we just love being outside and are good stewards of the environment.”

Can skiers imagine a future without snow? As our conversation ended, Popp and I each admitted that we could, that we had.

The worst-case future he envisions is vibrant and natural: “The people who like to be outdoors are still here, and even if there’s no skiing, we’re still highlighting this component of the whole lifestyle. While we love skiing absolutely, there are a lot of other things we love about being outside, and it might be we have to embrace those instead.”

While Minnesota’s manmade-snow parks like Theodore Wirth have better terrain than my Boston golf course of yore, I still savor the opportunity to ski on natural snow, to glide through a thick forest in a quiet that’s free of machinery, real snowflakes glistening on the boughs of trees. But even when I’m lucky enough to be alone in the woods in a real snowfall, I can’t help but think, How long until I can never do this again? Which romp in the snow will be my last?

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