The ski industry is at a cross-road with warmer and shorter winter seasons causing fewer days for snow production.

A skier is walking up a snowy mountain slope in January and hits a fork in the path with a powder-filled pine tree standing between the different trails. The skier does not know this yet, but they are standing in front of the two different futures the winter sports industry can take. The left path leads to only the mountains with the highest peaks having ski resorts because that is where snow can still be produced creating an elitist culture. The right path, on the other, hand leads to a future where people are in swim trunks and bikini’s skiing down a slope because technology has brought snow to even the warmest climates. 

Both paths are not just some made-up make-believe scenarios each one has just as much as the other for coming true and it all depends on snowmaking.

Snowmaking is more than filling in the bald spots on mountain slopes or trails it has become the backbone to a multi-billion-dollar ski industry. “Crucial to business,” Tobias Putner, operations manager at Skistar Hemsdal, said about how without snowmaking it would be impossible to make a living. We need artificial snow to make a business he restated. 

Snows artificial cousin

The natural way is the ideal way snow is generatedit happens when a super-cooled water droplet condenses around a nucleus of dust or pollen in the sky. Water vapor freezes onto the ice crystal and grows into a snowflake as it falls through the atmosphere.

The manufactured artificial way is a basic recipe of water combined with compressed air sprayed out of a tube called a snow gun. It may sound simple, but it is dependent upon freezing temperatures outside. If the temperatures are not freezing, then the humidity must be really slow or all that is going to come splashing out of the snow gun is slush, not an ideal skiing surface. 

Snowmaking is the production process of artificial snow. 

Back to the skier just standing in front of a tree and two paths. 

Pixby images. Snow gun shooting  artificial snow onto a ski slope.

The Left Path

As much as 90 percent of all ski resorts in Norway produce artificial snow and many skis runs rely entirely on artificial snow for part of their season, a memo from SINTEF a research lab reported, of that percent, a majority of the snowmakers being used depend on freezing temperatures to operate. 

The ability to create quality snows varies with the wet bulb temperatures, which is the relationship between temperature and humidity. If the air is too humid, the moisture on the water droplet will not be readily evaporated, resulting in slushy snow. A wet bulb temperaturebelow -2˚C (20˚F) is ideal for producing the desired dry snow. 

However, the ideal snowmaking days with the precise wet bulb temperature is running out. “We are worried – we see that the number of snow days decreases decade by decade,” Marit Gjerland, a fixed advisor for the Norwegian Ski Federation said. 

A study predicting the climate in Norway 2100projected that the length of snow seasons is going to decrease all over the country, with the largest reductions in the lowlands. Another study based on Austrian ski resortssays that the current snowmaking intensity will not be sufficient to guarantee a profit at elevations below 1,500-1,600m. There are only two ski resorts in Norway that have an elevation higher than 1,600m: Galdhopiggen Glacier Ski with 2,200m (Eastern Norway) and Stryn Glacier Ski with 1,600m (Western Norway).

The study on climate in Norway 2100’s got their predictions from three different scenarios: the first one is if carbon emissions are drastically cut from 2020, the next one is if emissions reduce after 2040, and lastly if “business as usual” there is no attempt to cut emissions. Nonetheless, with all three scenarios, the mountain slopes will see a reduction of wet bulb temperature days, meaning that t traditional snow production will not work anymore. 

“It has been shown that snowmaking is the dominant strategy of ski area managers for coping with projected climate,” Robert Steiger and Marious Mayer said.

Snow production in itself is a costly affair. Putner said that Hemsdal ski resort invests on average 5-7 million kroner per year in snowmaking. The resorts entire snow production including, snow guns, underground infrastructures, and water cost them around half a billion kroner. 

The size of that bill is not going to foot itself. Putner said that the snow production is constantly increasing. Eventually, if not already, the consumers are going to have picked up the slack end of the bill with higher expenditures.

If snow production is not sufficient later in the future it has a terrible chain of events leading to an economic clasped of a billion-dollar industry, countries that depend on winter sports tourism will be in trouble and more substantially a winter sports culture will be lost.

Cross-country skiing is the national sport of Norway. “[it’s] part of our DNA,” Gjerland said about four out of 10 Norwegians ski. A man skiing out of a tree line is a typical image of a Norwegian.

The Right Path

A number of institutions, federations and even government officials see the danger in losing snow. So, the Norwegian Ministry of Culture has granted NOK 2.3 million to the “Snow for the Future”project that aims to create a temperature independent snowmaker, which can operate in above freezing temperatures.

The Norwegian Skiing Federation, the Norwegian Biathlon, the Norwegian Sports Federation, the Municipality of Trondheim, and the Sør-Trøndelag County also contributed to the project being research by SINTEF. The total budget of the project is NOK 3.55 million. 

With the temperature independent snowmaker, people could potentially allow ski down the slopes when it is scorching beach weather outside. It could also bring snow to places that would not already have it – expanding the sport.

The project will focus on systems that can be achieved in a sustainable manner, without the artificial snow causing damage to the environment. The temperature independent and dependent snowmakers on the current market are energy demanding. One of the goals of the “snow for the future” project is to repurpose that energy into heating purposes, such as ski resorts. 

Petter Nekså, an energy research scientist at SINTIF, says that one approach to creating a sustainable temperature independent snowmaker is to develop heat pumps where the cold side can produce snow, while the warm side is used for heating. The project began in 2017.

Temperature independent snowmakers are the only other solutions to ski resorts staying open in a slightly warmer climate. There are a few different methods of creating temperature independent snow, but the flake ice method is the most popular. 

Flake ice is produced by applying water on the inner or outer side of a refrigerated cylindrical drum. Then the ice is mechanically scraped away and harvested from there. 

The commercially available temperature independent snowmakers are more energy demanding and have a lower production capacity compared to the temperature dependent machines. 

Sverre Foslie, Master of Science at SINTEF, says that the project’s goal is to scale up to increase the volume made. 

Artificial snow has become so reliant on that Putner said if they did not have it on the slopes it would not work because if it was just natural snow the ski traffic would flatten it down to the grass level.

Manufactured snow has a much higher density than natural slow enabling it to get harder and taking longer to melt. This allows the resorts to stay open in the spring. Many resorts depend on a base level of artificial snow to keep the slopes groomed. 

There is a notable difference to artificial snow and natural snow but the mass of enthusiasts on the machine-groomed runs seem indifferent to whether they are sliding down on fresh powder or man-made snow.

The snow made by snow guns give a better-quality snow because it produces it in fine particles that are closer to natural snow. Independent snow machines create flakes of ice. But Fosliesaid based on his experience, at Lillehamer a cross-country ski park, after the trucks the dropping snow off on the trails and drive over it couples of times – there is no difference.

Most snow on cross-country trails is transported there by trucks. The trails are usually 2m wide and ½ m deep, so it requires less volume than alpine hills. Also, the wind would blow the snow from the snow guns into the trees rather fall on top of the trail. 

One of the important questions in the future will be whether it is possible to produce enough artificial snow at an acceptable cost level?

Back to the skier that is still standing in front of a tree. They look down at their feet – then back at the trails ahead – and then back down at snow beneath their feet. It is most likely artificial driven there by trucks from a snow production factory. It is up to the skier now to choose the right path. 

Authors description: I wrote and researched this article while studying abroad in Oslo, Norway. It was for my international climate change journalism course.