Dangerous wind gusts have come and gone, but the most reliable weather forecast for the Beijing Winter Olympics? 100% chance of fake snow.
Artificial snow isn’t new to the Winter Olympics, in part as climate change shrinks the number of countries that receive enough natural accumulation to hold the events. But Beijing, where winters are usually dry, is the first host to rely almost entirely on man-made powder.
The water-intensive artificial landscape is pitting the International Olympic Committee and its Chinese hosts against ski enthusiasts and environmentalists — including political heavyweights surveilling China’s climate-change record. One group says too much water is used in an at-risk area. Officials, meanwhile, claim only clean energy powers the water up the mountain to the snow machines and the chemical-free snow can be used for irrigation later.
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It’s clear that finding snowy destinations to host the Games and addressing sustainability innovation such as using renewable energy require careful handling by the IOC, especially if it wants the Games to gain the following of ever-younger generations.
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The selection committee even noted the lack of natural snow as it was evaluating Beijing before granting the city its bid. The “Beijing – Zhangjiakou area is becoming increasingly arid” because of climate change and other factors, the IOC said in 2015 when mulling its options. That report also said that Beijing’s bid “underestimated the amount of water” needed for snowmaking.
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China, an economic powerhouse, is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. In teaming up with India, it successfully steered the rest of the world from implementing harsher restrictions on polluting coal at a recent U.N. climate conference. China consumes half the world’s coal and its output rose nearly 5% to a record 4.07 billion tons last year as the government ordered more production to ease power shortages.
Greenpeace estimates that Beijing’s temperatures could rise as much as 2.4 degrees Celsius on average as the planet warms. A warmer climate has already shortened the region’s winters by more than 10 days compared with the 1970s.
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A ski hill from scratch
The Beijing Olympics mark the culmination of a six-year effort to turn Zhangjiakou into an upscale winter vacation spot in the hopes of lifting an agricultural region out of poverty, before and after the Games take place. A high-speed train takes only 50 minutes from Beijing to these resorts. According to the government-run State Sport Administration, China has already achieved its goal of having 300 million people participate in snow and ice sports in the newly created destination.
“‘Already over the past five to ten years, we have been skiing only on man-made snow.’”
— Bernhard Russi
China, working with premier artificial snow supplier Italy-based TechnoAlpin in a $22 million deal, built miles-long networks of pipeline to connect two reservoirs to snowmaking machines for the downhill Olympic events on Xiaohaituo Mountain. Ribbons of white stand in stark contrast to the browns of the surrounding mountains near the Gobi Desert. Snowmakers have also been deployed farther north in Zhangjiakou, which is hosting freestyle skiing, ski jumping and biathlon.
Bernhard Russi, chairman of the International Skiing Federation (FIS)’s Alpine Committee, said over the weekend that the use of artificial snow shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“This is not new. Already over the past five to 10 years, we have been skiing only on man-made snow,” he said. “Sometimes it is a mixture together with natural snow, but in order to have a perfect course for Alpine racing, you need man-made snow to get the right quality.”
Once the water is piped up the mountain, the snow-making system comprises 272 fan guns and another 82 stick “lances” to produce “technical snow” for the skiing and snowboarding venues.
Those fan guns resemble small jet engines with nozzles spraying either atomized water or ice crystals. The guns, which can be aimed remotely using Bluetooth, blast the mixture dozens of meters into the air to cover downhill slopes, the Associated Press reported.
Snow lances, meanwhile, are up to 10 meters tall and don’t have fans, instead using gravity to carry the mixture to the ground, making it more like natural snowfall.
Differing water measurements
China has reportedly estimated that snowmaking at the Winter Games will use 49 million gallons of water — the equivalent of 74 Olympic-sized swimming pools — but some experts think that number vastly underestimates the amount needed.
Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg, voiced her concerns on the Living on Earth podcast. “For half a year, during the snow sports season, the water stays away from the natural ecosystem,” she said.
De Jong and others think China could need as much as 2 million cubic meters of water — enough to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools — to create enough fake snow to cover ski runs and access roads during the Games.
Zhao Weidong, a spokesperson for the Beijing Winter Olympics has said that almost 10% of water consumed in Chongli, a district of Zhangjiakou, will be used to make snow.
Well before snowmaking began, over half of Zhangjiakou, is “highly water stressed,” according to China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based environmental group, and the local water resource per capita is less than one fifth of China’s national average.
“Almost 10% of water consumed in Chongli, a district of Zhangjiakou, will be used to make snow.”
— Zhao Weidong
At the weekend press briefing, Wei Qinghua, mountain operation manager of the Zhangjiakou Guyangshu cluster for the Beijing Games, said the hosts had sustainability in mind when they planned the events.
“In the entire Zhangjaikou venue cluster, water used for snow making mainly comes from rainfall and surface runoff, and the water can be recycled,” he said. “For water from melted snow, we have a reservoir and two lakes which can store it so that it can then be used for agriculture, irrigation, tourism and landscaping.”
The snow-making equipment at Beijing 2022 has used 100% renewable energy since the beginning of snow production, the officials said. Snow farming is also used, which involves preserving and storing snow ahead of the busy season, a standard practice at global ski resorts.
The IOC also said that no chemicals were used to make the Olympic snow; chemical runoff has historically been a primary concern for environmentalists eyeing this process.
No doubt, the climate change story around these Games isn’t cut and dried, and revealing nuanced situations is key to understanding climate change, as this social media poster stressed. At issue: bid selection in the first place; water overuse; and best-case scenarios for underdeveloped land.
Some athletes have voiced their concerns about competing on fake snow, saying it brings new risks.
Estonian Olympic biathlete Johanna Taliharm told The Associated Press last month that artificial snow is “faster and more dangerous” because its greater moisture content tends to ice up.
Team USA cross-country coach Chris Grover said landing in it “can feel like falling on concrete.”
U.S. standout downhiller Mikaela Shiffrin called the slopes a mostly complimentary “grippy” and “aggressive,” Yahoo Sports reported.
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The IOC said artificial snow is used regularly at World Cup ski competitions and denied that it makes courses more dangerous: “To the contrary, it creates a more consistent surface from the top to bottom, or start to finish, of a course.”
Snow content aside, dangerous wind chills hit some athletes over the weekend. Temperatures lingered in the single digits but tracked at double-digits below zero when the wind was factored in.
What about the next Winter Games, and the next?
About 80% of the snow at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, was manufactured. When South Korea hosted in Pyeongchang four years later, that share rose to 90%.
Milan has been tagged for 2026, and all eyes will no doubt be on its environmental efforts.
A 2018 study, featuring researchers from Canada, Austria and China, found that if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically reduced, only eight of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to reliably host the Games by the end of this century.
Average temperature have risen from 0.4°C at Games held in the 1920-50s, to 3.1°C in Games during the 1960-90s, to 7.8°C in Games held so far this century.
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Manufactured settings for these Olympics will become more common if climate change is unchecked, according to a report from London’s Loughbough University.
The impact will be felt “starting with lower-altitude slopes and raising pressure and costs on higher-[altitude] resorts,” the report said.
And generating fake snow has a high environmental cost, the authors say. “Even if powered by renewables, a huge amount of energy is needed, which is both costly and can be a significant drain on water resources.”