The skiers and snowboarders competing at the Beijing Winter Olympics starting later this week will be the first group to chase their Olympic medals on mountains blanketed with 100% artificial snow.
Training and competing on man-made snow has become an unavoidable reality as warmer temperatures and shifting weather patterns have made it increasingly hard to rely on nature. Artificial snow has been used to supplement Olympic sites since the 1980 Lake Placid Games and has steadily increased in the past couple decades, according to a research report on Olympic snowmaking published last week.
"Natural snow is always better," said Jamie Anderson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in snowboard slopestyle and silver medalist in the 2018 Olympic debut of snowboard big air who will be competing for Team USA again in Beijing. "The consistency, the texture, all of it."
With only light dustings so far this season in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, the two locations that will host mountain events in China, snowmakers at the Olympics will need to feed 49 million gallons of water -- enough to fill roughly 75 Olympic-sized swimming pools -- through their machines to create an estimated 1.2 million cubic meters of snow, diverting significant energy and water resources in an arid region. More broadly, the researchers said roughly 95% of the world's ski resorts count on snow guns or snow cannons to blanket their runs.
"I'm really hoping this sounds an alarm bell about how we continue to grow sport in a sustainable way," said Madeleine Orr, a lecturer at Loughborough University in London and founder of The Sport Ecology Group, who co-authored the snowmaking report.
Orr's group worked on the report along with Protect Our Winters, an athlete-driven non-profit organization that pushes for impactful legislation regarding climate change. While veteran athletes like Anderson prefer an all-natural course, many are now used to competing on artificial or mixed snow. Their bigger concerns are rooted in what the changing conditions will mean for the future of their sports.
The events at the Beijing Games will have the benefit of an Olympic-sized budget and temperatures that are expected to stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Money and warm temperatures limit the extent to which snowmaking technology can offset changing weather patterns in ways that have already significantly disrupted mountain sports for everyone from recreational beginners to the world's best competitors.
"It affects us as professional riders, but I am concerned about the future," said snowboarder Kelly Clark, a 2002 gold medalist in the halfpipe who competed in the past five Olympic Games.
Clark, a Vermont native, said the lack of snow and warmer temperatures have made it hard to find ski areas with halfpipes, especially on the East Coast, which makes it harder and more expensive to introduce people to the sport.
"Now, the athletes go to the same four or five resorts every season that guarantee cold temps and good halfpipes," Clark said. "That's a bummer for a spectator and for a participant, and that will affect the future of our sport and how exclusive it becomes."
Molly Mahar, the president of Ski Vermont, said snowmaking has allowed their ski resorts and areas to maintain a fairly steady season in the past decade. She said the larger trends toward warmer temperatures are concerning for the ski industry, but many of the mountains have gone away from making halfpipes less because of warmer temperatures and more because there isn't enough demand from skiers and snowboarders to justify the extra work it takes to build and maintain them.
In a recent survey of 339 elite athletes and coaches in skiing and snowboarding, more than 90% said they felt a responsibility to advocate for climate action in order to help their sports survive in the future. Daniel Scott, a University of Waterloo environmental management professor who led the survey, said warm temperatures were widely seen as the sports' biggest threat in terms of both long-term sustainability and short-term safety.
Survey respondents said ideal temperatures for competing are between -10 and -1 degrees Celsius (14 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit). Most said conditions become "unacceptably hot" around 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit).
Average daytime temperatures in February at past Olympic sites have risen steadily in the past century from 0.4 C (32 F) in the 1920s-1950s to 6.3 C (43 F) since 2000. Scott's research projects that, even in a scenario in which humans significantly curb greenhouse gas emissions, at least eight of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics will no longer be reliable sites for the Games within the next 30 years.
Beyond the Olympics, ski resorts are already bumping up against the limits of how much snow they can produce in warmer winters. Scott said the average number of days that resorts were open increased from the 1980s through the first decade of the 2000s as snowmaking capabilities expanded. That trend reversed, though, in the 2010s as temperatures continued to rise.
"Even with the amount of snowmaking systems in place, the average ski season in the 2010s finally stopped growing and actually got a bit shorter," Scott said. "You're seeing the limits of what that adaptation strategy can do. That's the physical limits."
Snowmakers use chemical additives to help create snow in above-freezing temperatures, but the process can do additional harm to the local environment and uses up an abundance of natural resources. It's also expensive. Orr said the snow at the 2022 Olympics will cost roughly $3 per cubic meter (a total of $3.6 million) to make.
The bulk of the cost comes from the electricity required to run the snow-making machines, according to Chris Castaneda, who builds courses for the X Games as part of his role as the director of event operations at Snow Park Technologies. Courses for events that require the most snow -- like halfpipes and big air jumps -- have become more expensive to create in the past 20 years.
Castaneda and his team use a variety of techniques to prepare for big events: from snow cannons, to pushing ice through machines similar to large wood chippers and even sometimes combining liquid nitrogen and water inside giant temperature-controlled tents.
"We can make snow. There is always a solution," Castaneda said. "But what's the cost?"
Some of the more elaborate techniques are unaffordable for regular ski resorts. Even the basic snow machines come with a hefty price that eventually gets passed on to customers. Olympians today are worried that the pool for the next generation of athletes in their sports is shrinking and access is increasingly limited to the wealthy.
"The sport is becoming so much more exclusive," said 2002 Olympic snowboarder Tricia Byrnes, a Connecticut native. "It's the same in Colorado, but it's more dramatic on the East Coast. It's 80 [degrees] one day, and then it snows three feet and then rains. If we didn't have man-made snow, we wouldn't have a ski industry."
The cost of competition is also becoming a separating factor for even the very best-funded athletes and teams at elite levels of the sport. For example, cross-country skiing gold medalist Kikkan Randall said countries with bigger team budgets have a distinct advantage in her sport when artificial snow and warm temperatures combine to create inconsistent terrain. Randall said well-funded teams will travel with expensive, heavy ski grinding machines that allow them to carve new patterns into the base of their skis to match the conditions of the course. The right type of channels carved into the bottom of a ski can help an athlete move faster by shedding water more efficiently in wet snow conditions.
"A team like Norway brings 20 servicemen, and they can divide into teams and test four things at once. Norway has such a giant budget; they can send people to the Olympic venue four years in advance to test the snow," Randall said. "The U.S. team, we don't have the resources to bring [grinding machines]. When the waxing conditions get challenging, with a big temperature fluctuation, the teams with the biggest resources have the advantage."
The need to travel farther distances to find good conditions for downhill skiers and backcountry snowboarders also serves as a constraint on how many elite-level athletes can afford to train year-round or extend their careers by creating revenue-generating films.
"I feel for the kids," 2014 Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion Sage Kotsenburg said. "For those of us who are older, the blueprint has been that you compete in parks and pipes and then you go ride and film in powder, and now we are starting later and trying to find powder wherever and it's becoming more extreme and more expensive to follow that blueprint. Everything is expensive in snowboarding nowadays, and that doesn't help the situation."
Scott and Orr both said popular athletes can play an important role in raising awareness about the changing climate. Scott said he was happy to see that many of the participants in his recent survey were aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Clark and Randall are among the many athletes who have lobbied members of Congress for climate action legislation through their work with Protect Our Winters.
"They're seeing the changes," Scott said. "That was a real take-home message for me, that over 90% said they felt a personal responsibility to use their voice to be a champion for climate action. That was a really positive thing to see that athletes are finding their voice."
Scott said he has had initial conversations with members of the International Olympic Committee about coping with the impact of climate change on the Winter Olympics. Future Games might need to spread out across wider regions rather than a specific city, and sports federations might need to create rules about temperature ranges when it's unsafe to hold competitions.
Along with adjusting to the coming changes, the IOC is also trying to mitigate damage by throwing its weight behind efforts to be more green. Starting at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, all host cities will be required to be "climate positive," which means creating or purchasing enough carbon offsets to make up for any emissions generated by the events. The energy-intensive process of creating snow will add to the challenge of reaching that goal for future Winter Olympics sites.