The Next Hot Job of the Climate Crisis: Fake-Snow Whisperer


In a warming climate, ski resorts are using faux-snow guns more often to ensure a financially successful season.

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(Bloomberg) — When Halloween arrives at the Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia, it’s time to make winter. The resort owns more than 700 snow guns that between now and March will run for as many as 2,000 hours, blowing about 109 million cubic feet of snow out of thin air (and water). 

Snowshoe has about 250 acres of skiable terrain, but only enough snow guns to cover a quarter of it at any given time, making the art of snowmaking part science and part strategy. When the guns go on, a crew of eight takes to the mountain to ensure the nozzles are situated and the machines are mixing a proper ratio of water and compressed air. Wind has to be taken into consideration, and steeper runs and the sides of the trail need more snow because that’s where it melts and slides off most quickly. No one on the team is satisfied until there’s been a “sleeve test” — literally sticking an arm into the plume to make sure the white stuff is the proper consistency for sticking and piling up.

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When conditions are optimal, Snowshoe’s guns pump enough in 12 hours to cover a football field with snow 27 feet deep. But conditions are seldom optimal for long. If rain is coming, someone has to decide whether to make new runs or concentrate the guns and build a deeper layer in one place. 

For more than a decade, the leader of Snowshoe’s fight for faux snow has been Ken Gaitor, vice president of mountain operations. A big guy made bigger by a few extra pounds, Gaitor, 52, has a Norse vibe; his face is stoic and punctuated with an icicle of a goatee that hangs down to his chest, salted with weather and age. He is arguably the closest thing to a literal wizard of winter.

“This will be my 12th winter and there’s no way any of those winters would have happened for us without snowmaking,” Gaitor says. “We wouldn’t have opened.” 

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Snowshoe’s problem isn’t so much a lack of snowfall; the mountain gets about 180 inches of the real stuff every season. It’s the frequent warm spells and rainstorms. When the guns go on in autumn, Gaitor hopes for enough cold weather to open the day before Thanksgiving — a goal that manifests about half the time. In the spring, he hopes to add enough synthetic snow to keep the lifts running until late March. “If we can get to April Fool’s Day, we’re very happy,” Gaitor says. Often, his crew is blowing snow the night before closing day.

As climate patterns change, it’s these ski-season margins that are expected to melt away first. They aren’t the busiest, most lucrative days of the year, but they can make the difference between a season being a financial success or a wash. That’s especially true in a bad snow year, when fewer skiers show up and the mountain has to use more money, energy and man-hours to make its own white stuff. “It’s painful,” Gaitor explains, “but if we don’t make snow, nobody’s coming.”

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With weather getting both warmer and more volatile, Gaitor is among a special cadre of professionals spread across 462 mountains in North America. This army of snowmakers is trying to save — or at least stretch out — the viability of the continent’s $8.4 billion ski industry.  

Summer weddings help, as does mountain biking, but make no mistake: There’s an existential crisis on the slopes. By 2050, about one-third of US ski resorts are expected to have lost more than half their season, according to a 2017 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Colorado. The outlook is particularly grim in the Northeast and in places like West Virginia, where winter can be patchy to begin with. 

Industry giants like Vail Resorts Inc. and Alterra Mountain Co., which owns Snowshoe and 14 other mountains, are now frantically trying to climate-proof their businesses. The strategy, generally, is two-pronged: summer revenue and precipitation gurus like Gaitor. 

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The irony is that synthetic snow requires massive resources. To feed its guns, Snowshoe draws water from nearby Shavers Lake, an amount each season equal to two or three times the lake’s volume. Pumping the water and blasting it with massive amounts of compressed air takes a lot of carbon, too — a quantity Gaitor is not comfortable specifying.The size of the resort’s utility bill rankles him, as does its source: The grid powering Snowshoe gets about a third of its electricity from coal, compared with 19% nationwide. 

Snowmaking technology is getting cleaner, though. Snowshoe has been incrementally replacing its steel pipes with ductile iron, which is far less likely to leak both air and water. And in 2018, it spent a few million dollars on 75 high-efficiency snowmaking machines from Italian company Demaclenko; this summer, it forked over another $1.5 million for 38 more. Critically, the new units compress air on site, rather than drawing it from a plant at the base of the mountain. They use about one-third as much energy as earlier models to make twice as much snow. What’s more, each nozzle has its own weather station and can be programmed to kick on automatically at a certain threshold of temperature and humidity. 

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For Gaitor, though, there’s more to the job than data – a bit of alchemy, wizardry even. “It’s fun to think about the mountain just making snow for itself,” he says, “but a person like me, who’s just invested millions of dollars, is not willing to take that chance. I still need to have boots on the ground.”

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