Snow cannons to the rescue
1st December 2011
The Austrian resort of Ischgl has just spend â‚¬ 1million to make enough snow to open. Elsewhere ski resorts are making as much as they can as Mother Nature fails to provide. The snow cannon is an integral part of the mountain landscape but comes at a cost.
Last weekend Ischgl opened with 25 lifts running and 81kms of slopes. It didn’t happen by accident.
1,000 cannons were working round the clock pumping out snow.
The resort used up 650,000 cubic meters of water to open. It was a massive operation.
Last winter it used 800,000 cubic metres across the whole season.
“This was an extraordinary operation and skiers and boarders have been amazed at how good the conditions are and how many runs are open. They think it’s incredible and it shows how determined we are to hold good to our promise of a five month long snowsure season,” said the Tourist Director, Andreas Steibl.
The result can be seen in the photo taken below by a good friend of PlanetSKI’s, Rob Freeman, who was in the resort last weekend for the opening.
For the resorts it is business.
No snow = no skiers = no money.
Instead 14,800 people were out on the slopes of Ischgl last Saturday.
Some might question whether spending €1m on making snow is justifiable but the resort was packed at the weekend with people enjoying themselves and spending money.
With snow cannons in place it would seem rather odd not to use them.
However it costs enormous amounts of money to install and run the systems and ultimatley that cost works its way through to the lift pass and the holiday skiers.
We pay the bill.
Other resorts have done the same as Ischgl though perhaps not on quite such an industrial scale.
Val d’Isere was due to hold the Premiere Niege World Cup races on December 8th and 9th and with no snow falling from the sky they turned on the snow cannons.
However they couldn’t produce enough and the racing had to be cancelled and moved to the USA. The resort has lost much money.
In the Austrian glacier resort of Kaprun they have been making it in earnest at the top of the mountain where it is cold enough.
Then the resirts stores it for use later in the season or elsewhere around the resort.
As the photo below shows it is all in neat lines.
So when did the snow cannon first appear?
It was invented back in the 1950s by Art Hunt, Dave Richey and Wayne Pierce and they patented the machine.
It wasn’t until the 1970s though that it began to be used on a commercial scale as the natural snowfall began to reduce and the number of people skiing went up.
The principle is a simple one; small droplets of water are shot out at high speed into cold air and they immediately turn to small particles of ice.
Most systems are based on the same principle though there are many different types and sizes of machine.
At one point chemicals were used to allow the water to freeze at a higher temperature but that has all but stopped.
Now some resorts used a natural agent to help water molecules reach the best shape for turning into snow. The agent is biodegradable and non-toxic.
There are environmental concerns about the high levels of water used, the energy required, the reservoirs that need to be constructed and the installation of the cannons and the pipes.
There has also been concern at the levels of snow produced and how it may affect the plant life and vegetation of the alpine areas.
Most of the cannons are now computerised and are controlled from down in the resort.
Once the snow is made it is then distributed by the piste bashers.
Pretty much every resort now has extensive snow making facilities and last winter when there was little snow after Christmas in many resorts, particularly in western Switzerland and France, it meant resorts could keep most of their slopes open.
Without the cannons it would have been a very different picture.
As well as resorts making snow some of them now store snow from the previous winter.
The annual “Swatch Snow Mobile” skidoo race that is held in December has again been saved by special a snow depot in Saalbach-Hinterglemm.
The event needs 15,000 cubic metres to build the course so people can compete on their skidoos.
So the organisers collect snow at the end of the winter, cover it in wood chippings and foil then store it in a special depot through the summer months.
It was built in 2009 after poor snow conditions meant the competition could not take place.
Clearly it is not possible to store enough for a whole ski area.
The resorts therefore need cannons.
This year without the cannons the slopes of Ischgl would have been brown rather than white. It is the same across many other resorts.
The PlanetSKI content editor wrote about the pros and cons of the snow cannons for the BBC back in 2006.
For news of an expected snowfall this coming weekend see this related story on PlanetSKI.
For the spirit of the mountains