All of Beijing’s snow is man-made – a ‘dangerous’ resource-intensive trend as the planet heats up

Originally Posted: Feb 22 04 8:10 PM ET

Updated: 05 FEB 22 08:19 ET

By Derek Van Dam, (CNN) — It would be hard to hold a conversation over the deafening sound of the

It’s almost gorgeous, except the sites are surrounded by endless brown dry landscape completely devoid of snow.

In an Olympic first, although not a feat to brag about, climate variability has forced the Winter Games to rely almost 100% on artificial snow, which is part of a trend that is happening at winter sports venues around the world.

Only one of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics in the past 50 years will have a climate conducive to winter sports by the end of the century, according to a recent study, if fossil fuel emissions are not not controlled.

As the planet warms and the weather becomes increasingly erratic, natural snow becomes less reliable for winter sports, forcing venues to rely more heavily on artificial snow.

But that comes at a cost: artificial snow is incredibly resource-intensive, requiring huge amounts of energy and water to produce in an increasingly warming climate. Elite athletes also say the sports themselves become trickier and less safe when it comes to artificial snow.

No snow? To pretend

The region surrounding the outdoor Olympic venues is extremely dry this winter, but even in normal years it is not particularly suitable for snow sports. Average annual snowfall in Yanqing (where the alpine slopes are) and Zhangjiakou (where many other events, including biathlon, are held) is around 20 centimeters (7.8 in), although years higher snowfalls were recorded.

Enter the snow machines.

Italy-based TechnoAlpin has been tapped to manufacture the snow needed to cover the four outdoor event spaces around Beijing – a monumental task given the elite clientele that will zoom in on its product.

“We are very proud to say that we are the only company supplying the snowmaking systems for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics,” TechnoAlpin Asia regional manager Michael Mayr told CNN.

Mayr said it was the first time a single company had been tasked with providing all the snow for the Winter Games.

But there’s one essential element of snowmaking that some Beijing locations also lack: temperatures cold enough to freeze water.

In Beijing itself, which will host a few outdoor events, nearly every February day for the past 30 years has been above freezing, according to a recent Slippery Slopes report led by Loughborough University in London on how whose climate crisis affects the Winter Olympics.

Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which are higher elevation sites, are cooler, with average high temperatures that peak above freezing and lows that drop to around -10 degrees Celsius at night.

“There have been recent advances in technology that can generate snow when it’s above freezing,” said Jordy Hendrikx, director of the Snow and Avalanche Laboratory at Montana State University. “It’s not your ‘light and fluffy’ snow you might think of – it’s much denser and not very soft.”

Ice machines “on steroids”

Traditionally, snowmaking relied heavily on snow cannons and temperatures at or below freezing. To adapt to warmer temperatures and lower altitudes, a different approach must be taken.

To work around Mother Nature, TechnoAlpin told CNN it began shipping a full arsenal of snow cannons, fan snow generators and cooling towers to Beijing in 2018. Among those machines was a new technology used in a training center for Chinese athletes. : the SnowFactory.

“Think of it as a very fancy version of your refrigerator’s ice maker,” Hendrikx said. “But then on steroids.”

Making snow requires significant resources, namely energy and water.

“Obviously the hotter it is, the more energy we need,” Mayr said.

And with 1.2 million cubic meters of snow required to cover approximately 800,000 square meters of competition surface, according to the Slippery Slopes report, the demand for water at this year’s Winter Olympics is enormous.

The International Olympic Committee has estimated that 49 million gallons of water will be needed to produce snow for the Games, which is a lot considering how quickly the world is running out of fresh water. That’s enough to fill 3,600 average-sized backyard swimming pools, or – more precisely – that’s a day’s worth of drinking water for almost 100 million people.

‘It’s dangerous’

Athletes have also expressed concern about the dangers of competing at high levels on artificial snow.

French cross-country skier Clément Parisse, a bronze medalist at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, told CNN that while it’s not uncommon to have to compete on artificial snow, it tends to get very slippery. and icy, which presents additional challenges.

And Laura Donaldson, a Scottish freestyle skier who competed in Salt Lake City in 2002, was extremely critical of artificial snow.

“If super freestyle pipes are formed from snowmaking machines during a bad season, the walls of the pipe are solid, vertical ice and the floor of the pipe is solid ice,” Donaldson told researchers. of the Slippery Slopes report. “It’s dangerous for the athletes, some have died.”

The IOC is not alone in meeting these challenges. Artificial snow is being used as a tool to extend ski seasons in competitions and at resorts around the world, many of which are threatened by warming temperatures due to the climate crisis.

These challenges will continue to push the snow sports industry towards artificial snow when Mother Nature does not produce it.

But the question remains: just because we can, does that mean we should?

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