The millions of cubic metres of machine-made snow at Beijing venues mirror what many ski resorts already know – climate change means skiing and snowboarding are changing, too.

There’s something about this Winter Olympics that sets it apart from all others: Basically none of the snow fell from the sky.

In a way, it came from below, made with water from reservoirs that supply about 400 automated snowmaking machines. By the end of the Games, approximately 2.5 million cubic metres of machine-made snow will cover the ski and snowboarding venues.

Previous Winter Games have made use of snowmaking machines, known as snow guns or snow cannons, beginning with Lake Placid in 1980. Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 were particularly known for their lack of natural snow, but this year’s competition in Northern China will make history as the first to feature virtually 100-per-cent machine-made snow.

White ribbons will run through otherwise parched, brown terrain. That fact has underscored the impacts of climate change on high-performance winter sports and the mountains and glaciers that sustain them. It has also raised questions about the effects of machine-made snow on nature and athlete safety.

“We haven’t seen anything with this much artificial snow before,” said Madeleine Orr, a Canadian sport ecologist at Loughborough University London. “We don’t exactly know how this will impact the environment or the athlete, but we know it won’t be good.”

A statement like that – and the conversation around snowmaking in general – is polarizing. Even Dr. Orr’s use of the word “artificial” would cause snowmaking folk to bristle, since the white stuff they produce is typically additive-free and made with just water and air; they prefer the term “technical.” Environmentalists say snowmaking disrupts nature’s delicate balance. Snowmakers say they simply borrow water from nature for the winter and return it in the spring. Athletes say machine-made snow is often necessary but isn’t a silver bullet for a warming planet.

For many people around the world, part of the magic of winter is watching snow fall from above, blanketing trees and enticing children to play outside. It’s practically synonymous, particularly in Canada, with rosy cheeks, shovels and winter sports. It’s hard to imagine, then, that it’s unlikely to snow any in meaningful amount at this year’s Games.

It is difficult to pin down the precise average annual snowfall for the mountain zones of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which will play host to downhill skiing, ski jumping, cross-country skiing and snowboarding events. But historical data from nearby weather stations suggest the area receives an average of about 20 centimetres of snow over the course of a year. Calgary, which held the Winter Games in 1988, gets more than 10 times that.

As global temperatures rise, ski destinations around the world are experiencing shorter seasons and increasingly unpredictable snow levels.

Over the past few decades, snowmaking has become much more important to a ski resort’s success. An estimated 95 per cent of resorts around the world today rely to some extent on snow cannons. One major snowmaking company told The Globe it’s installing its machines at ever-higher altitudes and is developing increasingly powerful systems because suitable weather windows are shorter than ever before.

Dr. Orr is the lead author of a recent report titled Slippery Slopes: How Climate Change Is Threatening the Winter Olympics. The report features several athletes who describe myriad concerns regarding climate change and the increased use of machine-made snow, including unpredictable ski seasons that make it hard to find reliable training and competition facilities; athletes getting injured because they’re pushing the limits on courses with suboptimal conditions; an increase in rockslides; and solid, icy half-pipes and superpipes that may increase the risk of serious injury.

“Yes, we’ve always needed a push from artificial snowmaking, but we’ve come to an irreversible crossroad where artificial snowmaking is now carrying a heavy load,” Canadian freestyle skier Philippe Marquis, who competed in the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, says in the report. “Where will we be in five years? Ten years? Fifty years?”

According to research cited in the report, only six of the 19 previous Winter Olympics locations could reliably host the Games by the 2080s under a high-emissions scenario. Vancouver and Whistler, which held the Winter Olympics in 2010 and struggled to get adequate snow cover at one of the venues, is not one of them. It is considered “non-reliable” by as early as 2050; even advanced snowmaking technology would not be able to counteract the projected rise in temperatures.

In the International Olympic Committee’s 2015 analysis of host-city bids for the 2022 Games, the evaluation commission noted that China’s proposed mountain venues see low precipitation rates and short cold seasons. “The Zhangjiakou and Yanqing Zones have minimal annual snowfall and for the Games would rely completely on artificial snow,” the commission said. It said this would require a “diversion of water from existing reservoirs” that “may impact other land uses.”

China, the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter, has promised to deliver a carbon-neutral, “green and clean” Olympics. For environmentalists, that pledge is impossible to square with the realities on the ground.

The alpine ski site is adjacent to, and part of the same mountain ecosystem as, the 4,600-hectare Songshan National Nature Reserve, for example, and the Games are taking place in the country’s water-scarce north. Among the principal causes of water scarcity in the area is climate change, the IOC commission said in its report, noting that construction projects would require detailed environmental impact assessments.

According to the Beijing Organizing Committee’s pre-Games sustainability report, released last month, local water-management authorities in the Yanqing and Zhangjiakou zones concluded that water usage for the Games would not affect regional water consumption. All the water required for snowmaking, the committee said, comes from surface water collected from rainfall and snowmelt.

Just how much water the snowmaking effort will require won’t be known until the competition is over, but the company that built the systems for all the ski and snowboard venues has an estimate. Based on mathematical calculations and the number of snow cannons they have at the Games, Italian-based TechnoAlpin said more than 1.6 billion litres of water could be used.

Companies such as TechnoAlpin and SMI Snowmakers, which has equipment at one of the Beijing venues and has produced snow at previous Winter Games, including Vancouver, say their work is not consumptive. Whatever water is pulled from reservoirs and pumped into their machines is, for the most part, returned to the groundwater system when the snow melts.

Still, the water inevitably cycles through ecosystems in ways that nature did not intend. The IOC commission said it is “of the opinion that Beijing 2022 has overestimated the ability to recapture water used for snowmaking” and that this should be “carefully considered in determining the legacy plans for snow venues.”

Snowmaking technology has come a long way in the past 20 years or so, particularly in terms of temperature, humidity and wind gauges that can increase energy efficiency and reduce water consumption.

Nucleator nozzles are the heart of the machines. Using compressed air and water mist, they spit out tiny ice crystals, which are blown through a fan. While the crystals are flying through the air, another nozzle sprays water droplets. The droplets attach to the crystals and become snow as they fall to the ground.

The process is swift, creating snow that, under a microscope, looks nothing like the classic hexagonal flakes that fall from the sky. Machine-made “snowflakes” have a more cylindrical, almost pellet-like shape.

“There’s nothing beautiful or delicate about it,” said former NASA planetary scientist Peter Wasilewski, who ran a winter program in Lake Placid for the U.S. space agency from 2001 to 2015. He said the extent to which machine-made snowflakes differ from natural ones was an incidental discovery by microscopists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early 1990s.

As someone who has studied snow and ice for decades, Dr. Wasilewski explained what makes natural snowflakes so unique. “All the snowflakes that you see falling to the ground have at their core a tiny piece of dust,” he said. “When snowflakes get nucleated in the atmosphere, they don’t get accelerated through moisture. They gently fall down. Depending on the temperature and moisture content they fall through, they’ll form needles or wings.”

Michael Mayr, the Asia manager for TechnoAlpin, said that while “snowflakes from heaven” differ from the ones his company makes, venues that use machine-made snow have an upper hand when it comes to creating ideal conditions: they can strategically adjust the snow quality to suit the needs of different sports. Beijing’s National Alpine Ski Centre, for instance, requires wet snow that can be packed down to form a hard, fast surface. That venue requires the most water, owing to the large area that must be covered and the density of the snow. One cubic metre of snow at the alpine venue weighs roughly 600 kilograms. The National Biathlon Centre, on the other hand, requires much lighter, drier snow. One cubic metre of snow there weighs roughly 400 kilograms. Mr. Mayr emphasized that TechnoAlpin does not use chemicals to make snow.

Joseph VanderKelen, SMI’s Michigan-based president, said the ability to create optimal conditions for elite competition is critical because the stakes are so high: “When weather and Mother Nature are at play, you want to be sure to secure enough snow for the Olympics.” Mr. VanderKelen, who worked in water planning at B.C.’s Whistler Blackcomb resort in the 1980s, said his customers are “super sensitive” to environmental issues; the health of their resort is directly tied to the health of the planet. He said it’s up to his customers to decide whether to use an additive – for example, a product containing a natural protein that increases the number of nucleation sites in the source water – to increase their snow production, especially in warmer weather.

Views on sustainability aside, many athletes like the experience of training and competing on machine-made snow. The Fédération internationale de ski, which governs ski and snowboard competitions in many countries, said in an e-mail that machine-made snow creates a “more consistent surface from the top to bottom, or start to finish, of a course.” Beijing, the federation said, has “one of the most state-of-the-art, and environmentally sound, snowmaking systems.”

Lesley McKenna, a three-time snowboard halfpipe Olympian for Britain, said the ski and snowboard communities care deeply about the environment. She grew up skiing the slopes of the Scottish Highlands, at a resort that today is experiencing shorter and increasingly unreliable ski seasons. “We’re losing winter,” she said in an interview from Aviemore, Scotland.

Ms. McKenna, the athlete ambassador for the U.K. chapter of non-profit Protect Our Winters, said some European glaciers have become so diminished over the past few decades that they’re “almost unrecognizable.” In some cases, she said, resorts have had to shut down T-bars or chairlifts because the glacier tongue has retreated from the bottom pitch.

“There’s just no snow on it,” she said. “It’s gone.”

The Globe and Mail, February 3, 2022