The unexpected environmental consequences of artificial snow in the Austrian Alps.

By Elina Kolate

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Innsbruck Austria, 1964. Courtesy of  Allsport Hulton/Archive . During these Olympics,   there was no snow in the city of Innsbruck. The snow on the skiing piste was brought down from the Alps.

Innsbruck Austria, 1964. Courtesy of Allsport Hulton/Archive. During these Olympics, there was no snow in the city of Innsbruck. The snow on the skiing piste was brought down from the Alps.

The 1964 Winter Olympic Organizing Committee took up chain smoking, they were so stressed. It wasn't snowing in Innsbruck, Austria.

The Olympic organizers didn't want to fail before a worldwide audience, so the Austrian army got involved: 3000 soldiers climbed the Alps, to bring back 40,000 cubic meters of snow – that's the equivalent of 16 Olympic swimming pools.

The first snow machines already existed then, but ski resorts wouldn't start using them for another 10 years. Nowadays, artificial snow is nothing extraordinary –in the Alps, 30% of all ski resorts use it. That percentage will likely grow, as global temperatures rise. That percentage will likely grow with time, as global temperatures rise, because there is less and less snow due to climate change.

How to make snow?

The technology of making snow is very simple: water droplets are “shot” into the air; they freeze, then drop to the ground to form the snowpack. The air temperature should be below -3°C degrees Celsius (27°F). If it is warmer, the outcome is rain, not snow.

But to form decent snow, water isn't the only thing necessary - a nucleus is also needed, which the water droplets can freeze around to form a snowflake. The most popular artificial snow nucleus is the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae, which was initially discovered in a pile of old, half-rotten leaves.

Pseudomonas syringae’s proteins have the perfect shape for attracting water droplets. However, unlike natural lace-like snowflakes, artificial snowflakes are round. Ski resorts add a wide range of additives to improve artificial snow`s shape and natural feel. In fact, there is a wide range of chemical additives for everything: Is the snow too hard? Make it softer! Is it too soft? Make it harder! Too cold? Warm it up! Too sticky? Unstick it!

Full disclosure: I have a long-lasting personal conflict with winter sports. One of my brightest childhood memories is a sport lesson in the primary school, where we had to go to the forest to ski. The last thing I remember? Falling down while going down a mini-hill, my head getting stuck in the snow, and my legs with the skis still on them kicking chaotically in the air above. Ten years later, my best friend – a snowboard teacher – tried to teach me. After a mere three hours of watching me rotating down in a star position, he had to admit that there are some people who just can’t do it. So I don’t really care which kind of snow is better for sports – I don’t have any particular opinion about snow as a tool for recreation. However, I do have an opinion about artificial snow`s effect on the environment. And this opinion is negative.

Not just water and bacteria

To make snow, you need water — a lot of water. To cover just one square meter with skiiers' beloved snow, resorts need 200-600 litres of water (that's 50 to 150 gallons), 20-40% of fresh water of the available fresh water. Winter is the driest season in the Alps, which means that the precipitation rate is extremely low. Water for municipal needs and for artificial snow is taken from lakes, rivers, or artificial ponds — and, if needed, from groundwater as well.

However, this water is not necessarily clean. While the water in natural snow is relatively pure after floating down through air, water taken from lakes and rivers is full of nutrients, minerals, and various pollutants from the ground. So when spring comes and the artificial snow starts to melt, it floods the adjacent meadows with nutrient-rich water. This can gradually alter what plant species are able to survive there.

And when this snow melts, the water — loaded with nutrients and pollutants, as well as chemical additives — ends up in the very rivers and lakes used for further municipal needs.

A changing planet

Life on planet Earth is getting warmer, and snow is melting sooner; the grass in Alpine meadows is growing back earlier every year. But artificial snow resorts remain an exception: artificial snow melts 2-4 weeks later than natural snow, meaning that those happy milk-producing cows from Swiss chocolate labels have to wait longer to eat their beloved fresh spring grass.

Moreover, someone has to cut and dry the grass to make the hay that the cows are fed in winter. And you have to do it while it's still sunny and the autumn rain isn't disturbing the process. But – oh my, oh my – as the meadows start to bloom even just a few weeks later, the flowers aren't able to produce new seeds before they're cut. Consequently no seeds get dispersed, which leads to a decline in biodiversity.

Conflicts between ski resorts and farmers are already occurring, because their cows don't like the new, relatively uniform meadows. And I can totally understand them — if I were a cow, I wouldn't like to eat the same grass again and again.

courtesy of  Magnus Jälthammar

courtesy of Magnus Jälthammar

Where does the water disappear to?

Ski resorts are clashing not just with local farmers and neighboring communities over artificial snow keeping pastures frozen into spring, but also — ironically — with the very tourists they want to attract. Production of artificial snow requires a lot of water in the season with the lowest precipitation rate, but the highest influx of tourists. And while they all want winter sports, they also want to eat, drink, and bathe.

The production of artificial snow also reduces alpine water in the long term. Around 30% of water is completely lost in the process. The water used for this snow is often held in artificial ponds where some is lost due to evaporation; with climate change, more will be lost in future. Transportation from the reservoir to the resort also leads to some losses. And when water finally reaches the resort it is shot into the air to a height with higher windspeed, so only the heavier water droplets fall back to the ground to form the snow. The lighter water droplets are blown away and no one — not ski resorts, not cows, not local communities – gains from that.

Down on the ground, the snow causes problems for tourism in other ways as well. Artificial snow is around two times denser than natural snow, which means it has roughly two times more meltwater. And the artificial snowpack is usually thicker than a natural one — meaning that the amount of meltwater increases even more than twice. In regions with many ski resorts, this can cause flooding — though man-made, the effects of these floods would be very real.

During the winter there are two major problems: either there is too much snow, or there is not enough. It's too much snow when you can't open the door, or when all flights in Stansted London airport are cancelled. Yet everyone's dreaming about a white Christmas. And if you are the owner of a ski resort looking forward to a big pile of money flowing into your business during the winter, you're screwed if December, January and February turn into certifiable spring months. Artificial snow may seem like a great solution, but it makes the Alps far more vulnerable to ecological shifts and flooding. And that could mean a future when pastures and colorful flowers in the Alps slip into something very different.

If Julie Andrews wanted to do a comeback of “The Sound of Music”, it would soon be impossible. The places where she could sing amidst the colorful flowers in the Alps are disappearing fast.

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Elina is a Latvian with a master's degree in ecohydrology. Her passion is lame 1980s action movies and amateur hiking. She has tried to become a vegetarian several times and failed. When Elina started her work in a lab, she made a super professional impression on her colleagues despite not knowing what a pipette is. Now she knows.

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