Q&A with an Expert: The Winter Olympics in a Warming World | CU Boulder today


When the 2022 Winter Olympics kick off in and around Beijing this Friday, it will be the first time in Winter Games history that outdoor events have relied almost entirely on artificial snow.

The mountains 100 miles north of the city, where the ski and snowboard events will take place, only get about 7 to 8 inches of snow a year, so reliance on artificial snow was part of the picture when Beijing been chosen to host. But recent estimates that it will take 49 million gallons of water to sustain snowmaking for the two-week event have criticized its environmental impacts. Meanwhile, a new report from 2022 claims conditions created by artificial snow can be unpredictable and dangerous for athletes.

Noah Molotch, associate professor of geography and co-director of the Mountain Hydrology Group at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), studies snow distribution in mountains around the world. CU Boulder Today spoke with Molotch about the science of artificial snow, its use in the Olympics, and how climate change could impact the future of snow sports around the world and right here in Colorado.

What is artificial snow made of?

Artificial snow is a replica of how snow forms naturally in the atmosphere. It requires compressed air, water and some type of small particles, called nucleating agents, for ice crystals to form, similar to how natural snow forms. Other than that, the only weather conditions needed are relatively cold air temperatures, just around freezing point (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

Why is artificial snow useful for ski resorts?

Ski resorts use it to increase natural snowfall. It’s denser than natural snow and it’s more cohesive, so it sticks more effectively than natural snow once it’s on the ground. As a result, it creates fairly firm snow on the ski slopes, and this can be good for ski resorts that want to cover all obstacles on the mountain. Then the natural snow that falls on top has a nice solid base to pile on. But it’s expensive to do: So most Colorado resorts mostly make their snow in the fall, or only until all the terrain is open.

Noah Molotch, associate professor of geography and co-director of the Mountain Hydrology Group at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). (Credit: Lars Gesing)

Do people like to ski on artificial snow?

In general, most recreational skiers don’t really like skiing on artificial snow because it’s so firm and icy. But because of that firmness and ice, it’s really good for ski racing.

How does snow play a role in the organization of the Winter Olympics?

It must take place near a metropolitan area because of ice skating and all the other events that require the infrastructure of a metropolitan area. Depending on the country in which the Olympics are taking place, this may be at odds with the proximity to mountains which receive a lot of natural snowfall.

The last time the Winter Olympics were held in the United States was in Salt Lake City, famous for its natural snowfall. But when you look at places like Sochi, which hosted the Olympics in 2014, and places near Beijing [Zhangjiakou and Yanqing] which will host the alpine skiing events this winter, they are in fact renowned for their low snow cover. The criterion is therefore not natural snow cover, but the guarantee of favorable conditions for artificial snow cover. The most important thing is that you know the temperatures will be cold enough to make snow.

Is climate change affecting snowfall and snowpack here in Colorado?

Looking only at the amount of snowfall we receive each year, Colorado stands out as being somewhat less sensitive to the warming that has occurred over the past 30 to 40 years. But when you look at how much snow melts in the winter period over that same 30 to 40 years, in Colorado we see an increase in the amount of snow melting over time.

That doesn’t mean the ski seasons are even shorter, but it does mean that the snow could get a bit muddier and icier. Depending on what type of snow you like to ski on, I consider that to be a deterioration in the quality of the skiing experience.

How could climate change affect the Winter Games?

It is inevitable that at some point in the future the ski resorts we currently ski on will no longer be viable. Whether or not that will happen in my lifetime is an open question, but in my grandchildren’s lifetime, it’s likely. This means that we could ski elsewhere in the future. We’re going to have to start thinking higher in altitude when it comes to winter recreation, and we’ll be covering longer distances than we have historically traveled to go skiing.

The same is probably true when you think of the Winter Olympics: some of the venues that are viable today won’t be viable in 30 to 50 years.

What are Denver’s chances of hosting the Winter Games?

I think it would be interesting to consider Denver as a venue for the Winter Olympics! As the climate changes, Denver may actually become more and more viable as a venue for hosting the Winter Olympics, compared to other places that aren’t quite naturally so cold and snowy.


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