Behind the Scenes: Snowmaking
Behind the Scenes: Whether it Falls from the Sky or Sprays from a Gun, it’s Still “Real Snow”
Part of a series that explains some of the technical aspects of a ski/snowboard resort operation
When it comes to words for snow, the Inuit people of the Arctic have a big vocabulary.
Some of these words are oddly specific. For example, “matsaaruti” means “snow that can be used to ice a sled’s runners. ”
Others are more general, such as “aqilokoq” meaning “softly falling snow.”
Like the Inuit, skiers and snowboarders spend a lot of time in the snow and like the Inuit, skiers and snowboarders have built their own large vocabulary.
Some of the more common North American terms for snow include powder, blower, hard pack, boilerplate, crud, corn, mashed potatoes, slush and manmade.
One thing is for certain. Resorts always make sure that their beginner areas are covered with snow whether it falls from the sky or form a snow gun.
What is “Machine Made” Snow?
The ability to make snow depends on a variety of conditions and there are regional differences between East and West.
In the mountain West, where the winter climate is more consistently cold and snowy, resort snowmakers lay down snow in the autumn in preparation for natural snowfall and to provide early season guests with high quality snow on as much terrain as possible.
In the East, snowmaking is a season long proposition.
Since eastern winter temperatures can vary significantly from one day to the next, snowmaking provides coverage in early season and helps to replenish the snowpack into spring.
How Resorts Make Snow
The recipe for making snow sounds simple.
Build a system of hydrants, hoses, pipes and snow guns. Add water and air. Fire up the system, and voilà, here comes the snow.
In reality, making snow is highly scientific, requiring extensive weather monitoring and technical adjustments depending upon the conditions. Snowmaking is costly, requiring a lot of water and energy, so resorts seek to make snow as efficiently as possible.
Snowmaking conditions are dependent upon something called wet bulb temperature. Put simply, wet bulb temperature is the air temperature when cooled to saturation or 100% humidity.
Snow can be made at 28 degrees wet bulb Fahrenheit or -2 degrees wet bulb celsius.
And while this is the maximum temperature at which snow can be made, most resorts prefer a lower sweet spot of 15-18 degrees wet bulb Fahrenheit.
There are two primary types of snow guns: fan guns and air/water guns. The needs of the resort, and the daily weather, can determine which type of snow gun is best for the job.
Fan guns can spread snow over a larger area. Depending upon the model, fan guns can throw snow up to 125 to 250 feet away. These snow guns are very useful for laying down early season base, or to cover steep areas which require a deeper base.
Air/water guns spread snow over a smaller area, which can be useful when a resort is building big piles of snow to turn into terrain park features.
Larger areas have an arsenal of snow guns: different styles and different brands which have different operating characteristics and can be used in different scenarios depending upon current humidity, temperature and wind conditions.
Regardless of the resort’s size, the goal is to convert as much water to snow as possible, at any given time.
The Water Factor
Snowmaking is water intensive. To cover one acre one foot deep with snow takes 200,000 gallons of water.
Water is scarcer in the West, so resorts guard their resources carefully, working closing with municipalities and other water providers to use water efficiently.
Water is less scarce in the East, but no less valuable, and more extensive snowmaking can mean a huge demand for water.
In either case, resorts have developed sophisticated ways of storing water in large ponds that can hold millions of gallons of water.
There may not be a glimpse of snow anywhere but every time there is an opportunity for a resort to make snow, resort snow engineers will seize it.