While America has no shortage of snow right now thanks to last week's winter storm hitting most of the United States, we can't say the same for Beijing. As they host 2022's Winter Olympics, it's a good thing that the event has no spectators.
Not because of the ongoing pandemic, but rather even if there were spectators, they couldn't hear themselves think over the sounds of snow machines.
Already, China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics has sparked controversy, but now that they've stated Winter Games will be 100% reliant on artificial snow, it's concerning. Especially since this trend of artificial snow is a growing trend that's taking place across several venues around the world.
And this is a continued concern that doesn't apply to China, but rather the world at large. One study found that only one of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics in the last 50 years has the current climate that can appropriately host the winter sports until the end of the century. This study also assumes that the emissions of fossil fuels continue to remain unchecked.
What this study points out is that if the planet continues to warm up and the weather becomes more erratic over time, natural snow is going to become less reliable. This forces venues to rely more on the artificial snow.
And that artificial snow comes at a cost.
Human-made snow is faster than the natural snow that we're used to, however they require an incredible amount of resources. You need a lot of energy and water and those demands will only increase when climates are getting warmer.
And even if you've made the snow itself, it doesn't make it easier for the athletes. Several of them have said that doing what they're doing becomes trickier and not as safe when this kind of snow is involved.
The New Attitude: No Snow? Let's Fake It
The region right outside the Olympic venues is in an extreme drought this winter so some people could argue it's not a good place to host the Winter Olympics this year. But setting aside climate change, the areas picked aren't that suitable for snow sports in general.
In Yanqing, where the Alpine slopes are, and Zhangjiakou, where many of the other events are held, get an average of 20 centimetres (Or 7.8 inches) of snow over the winter season. Higher snow years have been recorded of course, but that's still a low amount of snow.
Enter TechnoAlpin, an Italy-based manufacturer of snow that's tasked with covering four outdoor event spaces around Beijing. It's a point of pride for the area manager, Michael Mayr, however, he and his team are facing several challenges.
Most importantly is the critical component of producing snow: cold temperatures to freeze waters. This is a challenge because Beijing sites aren't exactly cold. Historically, in Beijing, the temperatures over the past 30 years have been consistently above freezing when February comes around.
To their credit, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou are cooler thanks to the venues being on a higher elevation, but they're not that much colder. They hit a -10 degrees Celsius at night, which is 14 Fahrenheit.
Snow Makers Needed To Do More
All of these conditions push snow-making to a whole new level. In the past, snow-making was dependent on snow guns and temperatures at or below freezing. However, with warmer temperatures becoming a growing concern, different approaches have had to be taken.
Such as producing snow that can freeze at higher temperatures. In the case of Beijing, 2018 introduced fan-driven snow generators and cooling towers. In the end, the amount of snow-making technology that's been sent to Beijing is the equivalent of a highly sophisticated version of an ice maker in your fridge, dialled up to 1,000.
The process is requiring a tonne of resources too - namely in the water and energy department.
To put it in perspective, there needs to be 1.2 million cubic meters of snow that is needed to cover 800,000 square meters of the competition area. The amount of water is estimated to reach 49 million gallons as well. That's enough to fill 3,600 average-sized backyard swimming pools - or is enough to provide a day;s worth of drinking water for almost 100 million people.
This Is Dangerous For All Of Us
What all this means is that the games are incredibly costly. From the water alone, we're dealing with a world that's running out of freshwater. It's important for us to be smart with water consumption and here we are dumping millions of gallons of water to host a week-long event.
And again, the snow that is even produced still presents a risk to the athletes showing up and participating.
French cross-country skier Clement Parisse, said it's not uncommon to compete on human-made snow but the slick and icy nature of the snow presents challenges.
You also have Laura Donaldson, a freestyle skier from Scotland who said relying on artificial snow for her sport is terrible. If the walls of the pipe are solid and the snow is from snow-making machines, this can lead to vertical ice and the pipe floor being solid ice.
All in all, it's conditions that can lead to athletes dying and some already have.
What all of this means is that while temperatures continue to rise, the more the snow sports industry will rely on artificial snow. But we're still left with the question of whether all of this is worth the risk? Is it worth it to sacrifice more resources for sporting events that cost people lives? And for what? A bit of entertainment for us and some more business for the areas hosting the events? I personally don't think so.