Snowless mountains at the Olympics are Tahoe’s inevitable future

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At the start of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Robert J. O’Neill – conservative Twitter personality and man who claims to have shot and killed Osama bin Laden – posted a picture of a big air ski slope right next to cooling towers, with the backdrop of Brown Mountains and the scenery of Beijing’s Shijingshan District. The image was tweeted with the caption: “I wish it was a joke. Here are your Olympics,” supposedly illustrating China’s botched hosting efforts.

The image has gone viral, serving as a tool for those on O’Neill’s side of the political spectrum to shock their followers with unnatural, barely cobbled-together landscapes of communist China.

But O’Neill’s puzzlement is misplaced for a number of reasons. Chief among them: Beijing’s artificial snowscape will likely be replicated not only on the international Olympic stage, but also locally here in the United States – including, one day, even at Lake Tahoe, which hosted the 1960 Winter Games.

On February 5, the New York Times published an article detailing the efforts needed to bring artificial snow to a water-scarce region like Beijing. Then came a flurry of articles referencing the Times story, many of which came to the conclusion, or at the very least the implication, that the artificial snow process is harmful in several ways. The New York Times article lays out the same argument, focusing on how China inefficiently channeled a finite vital resource (water) so the Olympics could go on, to the detriment of the environment in as a whole and of the country itself.

It is of course true that the excesses host cities are prepared to endure in preparation for the quadrennial global event are inherently destructive. Citizens are displaced, forests are destroyed, areas that could hold valuable community services are demolished in favor of stadiums and other sporting venues (which often cease to be used almost immediately and eventually fall into disrepair) . And, specific to this situation, water is diverted from the main reservoirs to make artificial snow. China is certainly no exception to any of the above; Zhangjiakou officials, according to the Times, not only “turned off irrigation on tens of thousands of acres to conserve groundwater,” but also moved farmers who worked in Olympic competition areas to apartments in great height.

Winter Olympics before the area closes on January 3 in the Chongli County, Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, Northern China. The area, which will host skiing and snowboarding events during the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, has been closed to all tourists and visitors from January 4 and will be part of the bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic for participating athletes, journalists and officials. in the Games. “/>

A worker pauses as he shovels artificial snow on a road inside one of the athletes’ villages for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics before the area closes on January 3 in the Chongli County, Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, Northern China. The area, which will host skiing and snowboarding events during the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, has been closed to all tourists and visitors from January 4 and will be part of the bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic for participating athletes, journalists and officials. in the Games.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Rather than just addressing the missteps reported by China, it’s more useful to look at something the Times article itself touched on: “the reality of snowsports everywhere as the planet warm”.

Ursa Bogataj of the Slovenian team participates in a practice session ahead of the mixed team ski jumping event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the National Ski Jumping Center on February 7 in Zhangjiakou, China .  Competitions held during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held entirely on artificial snow created by a number of processes, including the flooding of dry riverbeds and the diversion of water supplies.

Ursa Bogataj of the Slovenian team participates in a practice session ahead of the mixed team ski jumping event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the National Ski Jumping Center on February 7 in Zhangjiakou, China . Competitions held during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held entirely on artificial snow created by a number of processes, including the flooding of dry riverbeds and the diversion of water supplies.

Carl Court/Getty Images

Take Lake Tahoe and how it functions during its ski seasons. While Beijing relies on outside water sources to create what is unnatural in its environment, Lake Tahoe uses the very climate provided by its ecosystem to amass a man-made version of snow. At least for now.

“You can’t make snow anywhere,” Tahoe South writes in an explainer on Heavenly Mountain Resort. “You need low air temperatures and low humidity – something we usually have a lot of during the winter at Lake Tahoe, even during dry spells.”

Tahoe resorts like to point out that the water used during the snowmaking process is “non-consumptive,” meaning that instead of diverting or depleting the overall water supply, it returns to the local watershed. And if conditions aren’t ideal for making artificial snow, some resorts will simply close for the season, regardless of the financial cost.

But that’s the catch. Thanks to climate change, the patience shown by luxury hotels might not last forever, and from there, a situation similar to Beijing’s could easily unfold.

Staff sweep and check the slope before competition at the National Ski Jumping Center on February 7 in Zhangjiakou, China.  Competitions held during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held entirely on artificial snow created by a number of processes, including the flooding of dry riverbeds and the diversion of water supplies.

Staff sweep and check the slope before competition at the National Ski Jumping Center on February 7 in Zhangjiakou, China. Competitions held during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held entirely on artificial snow created by a number of processes, including the flooding of dry riverbeds and the diversion of water supplies.

Carl Court/Getty Images

With the exception of last year, when a 51-year-old December snowfall record was just broken, Lake Tahoe has faced a series of increasingly worrisome winter droughts that have forced resorts relying more and more on artificial snow. Even the aforementioned record-breaking winter was preceded by a delayed opening of the ski season, a milder example of the predicted extremes that whiplash will bring.


In the future, artificial snow in Tahoe may only be possible at the expense of major water sources. A 2018 study by the Climate Impact Lab found that the number of days below freezing – impacting not only the days when snow will fall naturally on the ground, but also the days when artificial snow is easily produced – could drop from 41 (an average taken from 1981 to 2010) to eight. Another 2019 study by the Tahoe Environmental Research Center found that the percentage of precipitation in Lake Tahoe that comes from snow could drop from around 50% currently to around 19% by the end of the century.

This is important because even if the level of precipitation could stay the same, the shift from snow to rain will cause significant water storage problems in previously snow-covered regions. Snow is a natural way to store water that is easily distributed to those who need it when it melts. Without the same amount of snow, areas like Tahoe will have to turn to more expensive methods of water storage and, simultaneously, to more ecologically destructive man-made snowscapes.

In this April 14, 2010 file photo, a skier pulls through powder at Heavenly <a class=Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California.”/>

In this April 14, 2010 file photo, a skier pulls through powder at Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California.

Dino Vournas/AP

It’s possible that as climate change worsens, resorts in Tahoe and elsewhere will continue to make environmentally conscious decisions, choosing to close rather than waste the resources needed for abundant artificial snow. But there are business considerations that seem likely to come into play for larger resorts like Heavenly, owned by Vail Resorts, which had $6.2 billion in assets last year. Such a company can easily use its billions in revenue from successful ski season after successful ski season to run the money (and snow) machine.

There is precedent for this approach. An article about artificial snow in Powder magazine about a ski trip to New Mexico from 2013 led writer Jakob Schiller to describe the view as a white patch running up and down.

This same article includes the infamous story of Arizona’s Snowbowl, which used sewage to create artificial snow. Although it was treated sewage, it was discovered that there were still antibiotics, hormones, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, and the first time the workers operated the machine , the snow came out yellow. Imagine the shock and horror if either of these treats had been associated with Beijing’s artificial snow campaign.

Or do not imagine it. As climate change produces less snow, the artificial method will, by default, become the only realistic option for ski resorts to stay open. And then you might see scenes at your local ski resort that closely resemble this year’s Winter Olympics, with all the same environmentally-unfriendly caveats — and the same human tolls. – to start.

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