The other night as fat snowflakes, illuminated in the orange glow of street lights, fell quietly to the ground, I remarked to a friend that I don’t mind the snow. It’s the unrelenting cold, typical (though not recently) of Chicago winters, that I mind. In fact, I like the occasional dusting of snow, so long as the temperature flirts with thirty degrees and the accumulation stays well below my knees. I’d gladly take these conditions on most winter days, the exception being when I take a trip to Snowshoe, West Virginia to go snowboarding. Tolerable temperatures are welcome there, of course, but the snow should come down in droves, preferably from the sky instead of a snowmaking machine.
We’re planning to return to Snowshoe this year after a three or four-year hiatus of unusually warm, snow-free winters. And, although we never complain when barren slopes and unseasonably warm weather force my brother and me to retreat to a golf course in December, I am eagerly anticipating spending next week on a white mountaintop instead of a brown fairway.
Like most ski resorts, Snowshoe makes its own snow when natural snowfall is insufficient. Lack of snow on the slopes has become a real problem recently—not because of unusually warm winters every now and then, but rather a steadily changing climate that has led to sustained higher temperatures and reduced winter precipitation. In the Dolomites, an Alpine range in northern Italy, the driest and warmest conditions in 150 years (as of last December since recordkeeping began) have forced the resort to manufacture copious amounts of artificial snow to accommodate the busy ski season. In fact, Alpine resorts have had to go to great lengths simply to provide ski-worthy terrain.
Artificial snowmaking technology has become an indispensable part of keeping slopes adequately covered and ski resorts in business. Moreover, since its inception in the 1950s, this technology has become increasingly utilized and more refined as we’ve altered the climate and extended ski seasons. The initial scientific development, however, can be traced back to the creation of the first man-made snowflake.
In 1936 a Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya created the first artificial snowflake in a sealed chamber in his laboratory at Hokkaido University. A snowflake, the beautiful one-of-a-kind precipitate memorialized in kindergarten cutouts (or the agitated, overly sensitive uber-liberal, depending on your day) forms when water vapor condenses into infinitesimal micro-droplets. The droplets then find a nucleus—typically an even smaller grain of atmospheric dust—to which they attach and crystallize. More vapor collects on the crystal, creating a larger flake, which eventually grows large and heavy enough to fall to the ground.
Nakaya nucleated his first flakes on the fur of rabbits, inspired by a single flake he spotted on a single rabbit hair. A few years later the process was amplified and technologized when Canadian researchers accidentally created the first snowmaking machines while studying how ice forms on jet engines. As part of their research, the scientists sprayed water into a refrigerated wind tunnel—and got an artificial snow squall for their efforts. In the 1950s, one of the first purpose-build snow machines was patented in the U.S., based on the technique the Canadians had unwittingly stumbled across.
Now, snowmaking machines are more advanced and energy-efficient. Producing artificial snow mimics what happens in nature, but the snow is produced much more quickly. Snowshoe has 75 state-of-the-art snow guns that use a fraction of the energy required of traditional snowmaking equipment. They’ve already been used this winter to supplement the 15-plus inches of natural snow that has accumulated to date.
Snowmaking technology, while an impressive scientific feat, signifies a temporary solution to what may become a perpetual problem—winters that are warmer and drier with each passing year. From 1960 to 2017, the Alpine snow season shortened by 38 days—starting an average of 12 days later and ending 26 days earlier than normal. The same fate, though not as drastic and visually alarming, has befallen places like Snowshoe. These photographs, shot by Italian photographer Marco Zorzanello, tell the story far better than any words or statistics can. I echo Zorzanello’s sentiment that the loss of the beauty that once was the Alps is a just price for the damage wrought by humans.
When I go to Snowshoe next week, I’ll be grateful for whatever snow is there, real or fake. If the temperature rises and the sun is blazing I might even be able to shed my jacket and ski freely in a t-shirt down the mountain as the snow guns buzz efficiently on the slope’s edge. But I want Snowshoe to be around for a long time, blessed every year with a plethora of natural snow, blanketing the landscape from Silver Creek to Gandy Dancer and Skip Jack to Lower Hootenanny. Capable snow-making technology is an indispensable part of maintaining a quality ski resort. Yet, becoming too dependent on these tools results in an unsustainable system where we are continually trying to compensate for the deficiencies we created. If we fail to slow the pace of change and Snowshoe eventually turns into one giant golf course, I might not be too disappointed. But I doubt the planet will feel the same.