Alongside the athletes who have poured into South Korea’s PyeongChang for the Winter Olympics yesterday, some 250 snow cannons were also brought in to manufacture artificial snow, should the real stuff prove elusive.
Once used to patch up balding ski runs, artificial snow is now used to guarantee and extend the ski season in resorts around the world, crucially providing snow during the lucrative Christmas and Easter period when natural snowfall can be patchy or non-existent.
Snowfall has been decreasing in the northern hemisphere since the 1980s.
The snow arrives later and melts earlier, too.
Manufacturing snow seems like a neat solution for resort owners, but an avalanche of recent research reveals how artificial snow is damaging the environment and even affecting the lives of people who live in mountainous regions.
The problems with artificial snow
Vast amounts of water are needed to manufacture artificial snow.
In some places, such as the Alps, a significant amount of available drinking water is directly used for snow production. This has a huge impact on local communities and creates water shortages.
Artificial snow is harder than natural snow, so falling on it carries a far greater risk of injury. In ski resorts, the few narrow runs that are kept open with artificial snow can become overcrowded, which increases the risk of accidents.
The noise of snow cannons running at night and the chemicals used in snow production can impact negatively on wildlife in the area.
Artificial snow is also harmful to the environment. As it’s not made from natural rain water, its chemical composition and higher mineral content can disrupt natural biodiversity.
The enjoyment of skiing and snowboarding is at stake, too.
As well as unnatural looking mountains, skiers are also having to navigate concrete hard artificial snow, grassy patches and even rocks.
While PyeongChang’s use of fake snow is potentially restricted to just the Winter Olympics, the problem extents to the wider winter sports industry.
However, not all winter sports destinations rely on artificial snow, so anyone looking for an authentic winter break on real snow should head higher, where you can still enjoy great downhill skiing, or head north.
A huge number of winter snow holidays take place in Scandinavia – offering everything from skiing to dog sledding, snow shoeing and cross country skiing – and its northerly latitude means snowfall is dependable and snow cannons are not in use.
Timing is important, too.
Historically, skiing and other winter activities took place when mountain conditions permitted.
The first skiers would not have expected snow to be guaranteed from November to April, but the skiing industry’s focus on Christmas, when snowfall can be patchy, and on extending the season into Easter – which can fall as late as mid April – has increased the demand for artificial snow.
By travelling in the depths of winter – January, February and early March – you get to enjoy the real white stuff, even in regions that have the capacity to manufacture the fake.
Joanna Simmons is a writer specialising in responsible tourism at Responsible Travel. Her best travel moment was hiking with her family in the Dinaric Alps of Montenegro and experiencing epic views of Albania.