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The Beijing Olympics and the dirt on fake snow

A snow cannon creating artificial snow.
Adobe Stock
A snow cannon creating artificial snow.

News Brief

If you’re watching the Olympics, you’ve likely seen big brown and green mountains covered in veins of artificial snow trails. Resorts in the Mountain West rely on snow machines, too, but to a far lesser extent – at least for now. So, how is fake snow different?

Peter Veals teaches atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and also founded a snowmaking startup. He explains that artificial snow doesn’t form crystals like it does in the clouds.

“You’re basically freezing little balls of water, right?” he said. “You’re turning it into solid balls of ice. And they’re very tiny, and they look like natural snow. They look white to the naked eye.”

And artificial snow is a bit dense and icy, unlike the powder Mountain West recreators tend to love. But Veals said racers actually prefer the fake stuff. Their sharp skis and boards cut right through, it’s uniform, and it lets them go faster.

“These racers want such a firm, consistent, icy surface that a lot of race courses are prepared by blowing or spraying liquid water onto them to make them even icier,” he said.

Plus, he said there are fewer concerns about poor visibility from a real snowstorm, and fewer deep ruts form in the snow as racers pass through.

There are downsides, though. Veals said artificial snow can mean harder landings after failed jumps. It’s been a concern for Nordic skiers, too.

“These skis that Nordic skiers use don’t really have sharp edges,” he said. “They seem to be worried more about the hard, icy surface causing more crashes.”

In any case, Veals said more fake snow is likely in our future.

“As the climate warms and more of these mountain areas see a higher fraction of rain relative to snow in winter storms, people are going to start to really miss natural snowfall,” he said.

Fluffier, more natural-feeling artificial snow is already made in labs, but the challenge is scaling that process up to meet ski hill needs. Veals is working on some of that, himself, through a startup called Quantum Snow.

Veals originally wrote about artificial snow in The Conversation.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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