Winter Sports

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Shuffling Snow from Site to Site Means Winter Events Can Survive

6 Apr, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Let It Snow? More like Bring It On.

Following a year in which the International Ski Federation (FIS) has cancelled or amended a number of upcoming World Cup events across its various disciplines due to unseasonably warm weather around the globe, it had come to this: the Itidarod dog sled race didn’t have enough snow, so it trucked it in.

According to an article in Outside Magazine, an unusually warm winter in the southern part of Alaska left Anchorage completely without snow, so earlier in March, three days before the ceremonial start of the race in downtown Anchorage, a train loaded with 350 cubic yards of snow left Fairbanks and began a 360-mile journey to the state capital.

After all, the article noted, this was a prime spectator spot, and “no one wants to see mushers scraping their sleds on asphalt for the three-mile-long start.”

It was the first time in the history of the race that organizers arranged to import snow like this, and the last-minute maneuver represents a growing need around the world for fresh snow, on demand. And while some winter sports event organizers chase snow around the globe, moving locations of events to keep them viable, others are having snow shipped in.

The Outside article noted that sporting events like the Hahnenkamm World Cup ski races in Austria, as well as ski resorts throughout Europe and Asia, all depend on snow deliveries and storage for their success. Even the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics needed a boost, as did the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

It has even become a niche market for those with the wherewithal to deal with it.

“The need is obvious,” Finnish snow-storage pioneer Mikko Martikainen, 59, told Outside. Martikainen led a four-year effort to store one million cubic meters of snow for the Sochi Olympics. “Look at resorts in Europe this winter: very [low snowfall]. And scientists are estimating no skiing below [6,500 feet in elevation] in the Alps in 20 years. But if you store snow, your business won’t be ruined.”

After seeing snow in summer (and noticing it hadn’t melted because it was insulated by a pile of debris), Martikainen had his a-ha moment. He started his snow-storage business, Snow Secure, in 2005. Today, he travels around the world, working with more than 20 ski areas and consulting with international ski federations from Norway to Croatia. Earlier this month, he flew to South Korea to conduct tests with the organizing committee for the 2018 Winter Games. His job: ensure there is enough snow to stage the alpine and cross-country competitions two years from now. 

Harvesting snow is a process, but storing it, the article notes, is a science. The most common method involves covering piles of natural and manmade snow or crucial pieces of a glacier with a polypropylene tarp with reflective properties at the end of the spring. If done correctly, it can preserve the snow until the following fall. In some cases, more sophisticated measures are used, depending upon the amount of snow needed and the speed at which it must be moved.

Of course, the question often becomes: why not just use a snow-making system, like those found at ski resorts?

Because, as it turns out, it’s just not that simple. According to an article in Bloomburg Business, snowmaking is an incredibly expensive, complex process.

Equipment to make enough snow to fully coat a large area can’t be rented or borrowed, and the massive amount of water needed to create so much snow demands infrastructure that must be designed into the resort.

In short, no matter how important your event is, you can’t just set something up, turn it on and start making snow.

The issue of climate change also causes a constant reconfiguration of snowmaking plans. If winters continue to get warmer, as they’re predicted to do, resorts will need an increasing amount of water, as well as an increasing amount of snowmaking guns, and will need to blow them more and more often.

“At 20 degrees, it’s easy and takes relatively low power and relatively little water,” Jordy Hendrikx, director of Montana State University’s Snow and Avalanche Laboratory, told Bloomberg. “At 32, it takes huge amounts of both to make low-quality snow, and there isn’t a lot of it.” The power required for snowmaking exacerbates climate change and causes temperatures to rise, which in turn requires more snowmaking.

In California, ski resort Heavenly Valley keeps its tourism industry going with its sophisticated equipment – but it comes at a cost. There are smartphone-controlled snowmaking systems made up of fiber-optic cables and low-energy fan guns that can cost upwards of $40,000 each, and even with that, a dedicated crew is constantly measuring and monitoring conditions.

Smaller, less moneyed venues don’t have that level of adaptability. For example, little Sierra-at-Tahoe, less than 20 miles from Heavenly, has six older snowmaking guns that it occasionally runs at low levels, but managers understand the resort cannot afford the amount of water it would take to use equipment like that found at Heavenly.

Instead, the crew at Sierra does its own form of snow storage, collecting snow from the deck of the day lodge and from its parking lots, then hauling it up the slopes. Snow fences, usually erected next to blustery highways in Wyoming, catch any extra snow that blows in. This too is transported up the hill.

It’s a day-to-day method of survival that is common to resorts without sophisticated snowmaking equipment.

“A small player may only weather one bad season and cash reserves will be gone,” Daniel Scott, a professor of tourism management at the University of Waterloo in Canada who has studied the effects of climate change on the ski industry, told Bloomberg. “Two bad seasons, and that’s all she wrote.” As it is, only 45 American ski areas have climbing revenues, and this 10 percent of hills already accounts for 40 percent of all ski business, according to former Vail Resorts and Intrawest exec Bill Jensen. Within a decade, it is theorized that 300 of the 470 U.S. ski resorts could be gone.

Snow storage will never replace snowmaking at large ski resorts, Martikainen says, because those resorts offer snow across massive areas that need constant coating. But effective snow storage can prolong the ski season by one to two months, Martikainen says. More importantly to event organizers in areas where no snow or snowmaking equipment exists, such as Anchorage, it can allow events to go on as planned.

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