What is artificial snow and why can it be dangerous for the environment and athletes?

For the first time, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing will rely entirely on artificial snow. The environmental impacts of artificial snow are detailed in a research paper published by Loughborough University’s Sport Ecology Group and Save Our Winters. The paper also mentions that harder-made snow is dangerous to athletes’ health.

What is artificial snow?

Snow that is injected with water to harden it and then treated with chemicals to keep the hardened snow in place is a form of artificial snow recommended for winter competitions.

AFP

According to an analysis published by Loughborough University, only ten of the twenty Winter Olympics venues since 1924 will be able to produce enough snow by 2050 to host an international-level tournament like the Winter Olympics. The artificial snow is crucial for surviving the winter games.

How is artificial snow made?

Artificial snow slopes suitable for competitions require a lot of water and electricity. The use of artificial snow, particularly for sports, has expanded dramatically in a world where natural snowfall is progressively declining.

Russia used artificial snow in 80% of the competitions at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. At the Winter Games in Pyongyang, that number rose to 90 percent. The Vancouver 2010 Olympics were also notorious for having to use helicopters to fly in the snow for the competitions.

Snow-making systems from the Italian company TechnoAlpin were used for the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. These devices have been producing artificial snow since November 2021.

These machines create snow by simultaneously pumping out ice particles and a thin mist of water vapor. These two particles are released into the air and combine to form snow, which eventually falls to the ground. According to the Sunday Times, TechnoAlpin has deployed 290 snow cannons across Beijing.

Is artificial snow necessary?

According to the Slippery Slopes assessment, weather changes caused by global warming are threatening snow sports and limiting the number of acceptable venues for future Winter Olympics.

artificial snow
AFP

In a bid evaluation document, the International Olympic Committee stated that the Yanqing and Zhangjiakou venues for the 2022 Games “would have minimal annual snowfall and would rely entirely on artificial snow.”

Almaty, a city in Kazakhstan with snowy winters, was another option, but Beijing was seen as a safe bet after hosting the 2008 Olympics.

environmental destruction

The Beijing 2022 Hosting Committee estimates that 222 million liters of water are needed to create snow conditions, despite Beijing being one of the world’s most arid cities.

China has promised to host a “green and clean” Olympics powered entirely by renewable energy sources. Artificial snowmaking, especially when powered by renewable energy, can be energy and water intensive, and chemicals or biological additives are often used to improve quality and slow melting.

Chemically treated water can reduce biodiversity and damage plants, and slow melting means plant growth is retarded beneath snow cover. According to Peter Speight, a British freestyle champion and Winter Olympian, man-made snow should not be viewed as a way to combat climate change.

artificial snow
Reuters/Representative Image

He further explained: “It is useful for making physical snow for people. However, it consumes a lot of water and energy and does not contribute to solving climate change,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC.

“We need to solve climate change at the source, rather than relying on mitigation-focused solutions.”

“A danger for athletes”

According to the paper, athletes are more at risk when competing on artificial snow as it tends to create a faster and rougher surface, which can lead to more serious injuries if they fall.

Laura Donaldson, a British freestyle skier who competed in the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics, believes athletes are more likely to injure themselves competing on artificial snow.

“When freestyle superpipes are formed from snow machines in a bad season, the walls of the pipe are solid, vertical ice and the tube sheet is solid ice,” she told the report. “It’s dangerous for athletes.”

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