Dry Beijing barely receives winter rainfall, making this year’s Winter Games the first to rely almost entirely on artificial snow. The organizers praise the ecological qualities of the event, but experts are concerned about the environmental impact of such a massive snowmaking operation given the enormous quantities of water and electricity it requires.
In Yanqing, north of Beijing, where organizers built the alpine skiing venue from scratch, the slopes stand out as ribbons of white in stark contrast to the surrounding brown hills. Snow cannons have also been deployed further north in Zhangjiakou, which hosts freestyle skiing, ski jumping and biathlon.
All of this is the product of months of snowmaking using sophisticated European equipment.
Here is an overview of the Olympic snowmaking operation:
HOW IT WORKS
Natural snow forms high up in the clouds when water vapor molecules cling to tiny particles like pollen or dust. In scientific jargon, these grains are called nucleators. They create a core of snow which then attracts more water molecules to form snowflakes.
Snowmaking equipment attempts to replicate this process, artificially, by spraying atomized water into the air with mechanically created nucleators – tiny ice crystals – which act as seeds for the snowflakes being made. This process has been around for decades: simulated snow was first used at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
TechnoAlpin won the tender to supply the Beijing Games with snowmaking equipment, a contract worth 22 million dollars.
The Italian company covered the slopes with 272 fan guns and 82 other “lances” to produce “technical snow” for the Winter Olympics ski and snowboard venues. They are all connected to a system of high-pressure pumps and pipes that carry cooled water from cooling towers up the slopes.
TechnoAlpin’s fan guns look like small jet engines or oversized hair dryers, with nozzles spraying atomized water or ice crystals mounted around the edge of a turbine. The guns, which can be steered remotely via Bluetooth, shoot the mixture tens of meters into the air to cover wide downhill slopes.
“And as it falls to the ground, snow forms,” said Michael Mayr, TechnoAlpin’s China sales manager.
Snow lances, on the other hand, are up to 10 meters tall and have no fans, instead using gravity to transport the snow-making mixture to the ground, making it a little more like a chute. natural snow.
Beijing and Zhanghiakou are not far from the Gobi Desert and are “highly water-stressed”, China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based consultancy, said in a 2019 report.
The International Olympic Committee even noted the problem in its own assessment of Beijing’s 2015 bid, saying both districts “have minimal annual snowfall” and that the Winter Games would have to rely entirely on snow. fake snow.
The “Beijing-Zhangjiakou region is becoming increasingly arid” due to climate change and other factors, the IOC said, adding that Beijing’s bid “underestimated the amount of water” needed to make the snow.
China has reportedly estimated that snowmaking at the Winter Games would need to use 49 million gallons of water – the equivalent of 74 Olympic swimming pools – but some experts believe that number grossly underestimates the amount needed.
The IOC now claims that artificial snowmaking in Beijing has been developed “according to high technical and environmental standards”.
“The regions where the snow sports events will take place are constantly very cold,” the IOC said in a statement. “This allows for very efficient snow production and does not require the constant reproduction of snow,” like ski resorts elsewhere with fluctuating temperatures. that cause snowmelt.
Snowmaking can raise other environmental concerns, including the chemicals sometimes used to help water freeze at higher temperatures and the electricity needed to power the systems, which could mean more large carbon footprint. The IOC says all venues and facilities are powered by wind and solar power and no chemicals are used due to the region’s cold temperatures.
“Of course we use a lot of energy to make snow,” said Bernhard Russi, president of the International Ski Federation’s Alpine Committee, during a press briefing on Saturday. But he added that the challenge is how to store snow over the summer for the next season – something that is already being done in Europe, saving resorts up to half that.
WHAT ATHLETES SAY
Athletes have expressed concerns about competing on fake snow, saying it comes with new risks.
Skiers and experts say artificial snow holds more moisture, which means it freezes faster. Estonian Olympic biathlete Johanna Taliharm told The Associated Press last month that artificial snow is “faster and more dangerous” because of icing.
Russi, a 1972 downhill gold medalist in Japan, acknowledged that “of course the ski racers and us organizers prefer to have natural snow”, but added that using machines to make snow allows them to get the right “hardness” for each. the discipline.
The IOC said artificial snow is used regularly at World Cup ski racing and denied it makes courses more dangerous: “On the contrary, it creates a more even surface from top to bottom, or from beginning to end, of a journey.”
As the Winter Games begin, Russi said “the snow we’re finding on the courses right now is absolutely perfect, you can’t have it better.”