Ski Resorts’ Snowmaking Quandary

Mild winters and energy-intensive snowmaking are in a positive feedback loop

By Jen Rose Smith

February 22, 2023

Sad ski slopes

A ski slope with only artificial snow in a dry winter. | Photo by michelangeloop/iStock

By the third week of January this year, not a single inch of natural snow had whitened the ski slopes of Massanutten Resort in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The nor’easters that brought big snowfall in past decades now seem to be passing well to Massanutten’s north, says Jesse Reist, the resort’s snowmaking manager. “We’ve been more and more on the rain side of the snow–rain line,” Reist says. “This year we’ve gotten an ice storm, a sleet storm, then a lot of rain.”  

With no blizzards to kick-start the season, Massanutten relies on snowmaking—producing artificial snow by forcing water and pressurized air through snow guns. This year in particular, snow guns have been working overtime to keep the ski runs open. However, as temperatures rise, the efficiency of the snowmaking plummets. While it’s relatively easy to make snow in zero-degree weather, when temperatures hover around freezing, the process becomes far more energy-intensive. “We overcome warmer temperatures with more horsepower,” Reist says. 

It’s a positive feedback loop: As the climate crisis brings milder winter weather to many places, resorts amp up greenhouse-gas-producing snowmaking efforts. That’s just part of the broader predicament facing people who love to play on snow. “As the world gets warmer, the main resource upon which skiing relies is going away,” says Madeleine Orr, a sports ecologist at Loughborough University London’s Institute of Sport Business. “That has implications all over the place in terms of how we replace that resource.”

To stay afloat, most resorts need to achieve 100 skiable days, Orr says. Ski areas in the European Alps have been leading the way when it comes to creative solutions to snow shortages, perhaps because of the daunting climate future they face—even low-emissions projections suggest a third of the region’s 600-plus ski areas will close by 2080. Efforts to keep runs open can carry a heavy environmental footprint. For years, French resorts have harvested snow from high altitudes to cover lower-altitude runs, a process that strips already melting glaciers of critical insulation, Orr says. Facing a historically warm season, Swiss ski areas in Gstaad recently sent helicopters to shuttle back payloads of snow, drawing criticism for their carbon-intensive approach. Italian ski resorts have covered snow with giant plastic tarps to protect the slopes from the sun’s snow-melting rays; plastic mats laid down directly on ski runs can offer year-round “skiing,” and even be equipped with coolant to help preserve any natural snow that falls on top. “We’re talking very energy-intensive,” Orr says. 

Other strategies, however, offer glimmers of hope, Orr says, pointing to wind fences that could reduce snowmelt on exposed slopes. Since 2019, the nonprofit Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont—one of the premier cross-country ski areas in the United States—has been making snow during the frigid February weeks, when snow guns are most efficient, piling it into a pit, then covering the pile with wood chips that help prevent melting. Solar installations power some 60 percent of Craftsbury’s electricity use, and diesel generators used to supplement snowmaking are equipped with heat recovery to warm the center’s dormitories, lodge, and cafeteria. In autumn, Craftsbury spreads the cached snow from the prior winter onto trails to create a skiable surface.

“The amazing thing is, it’s ridiculously simple technology—I think about icehouses 100 years ago,” says Paul Bernheim, a professor at the University of Vermont. “We’re doing nothing different.”  

There’s more promising news too: Despite warming conditions and the increased need for snowmaking at ski resorts across the globe, the tools for making snow are in fact getting better. “The last decade has seen a large shift in terms of energy-efficiency, the result of equipment improvement in that time span,” says Jonathan Thibeault, a senior engineer and snowmaking expert at the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), a sustainable-energy nonprofit that works with ski areas around the country to green their operations. 

For starters, technological improvements have made snow guns about 25 percent more efficient, Thibeault says, largely by reducing their need for compressed air. The equipment is expensive, but many ski resorts are investing in energy-efficient upgrades. VEIC has consulted on 747 energy-efficiency projects at ski area around the country, amounting to an estimated lifetime reduction of greenhouses gases with a warming potential equivalent to 978,057 metric tons of carbon dioxide—and most of that reduction can be attributed to better snow guns. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) is helping fund the transformation: For instance, in 2022 it awarded Massanutten Resort $30,000 as part of its Sustainable Slopes Grant Program, which offers money to replace old equipment with new, efficient HKD snowmakers. 

Still, no one I spoke with for this story sees snowmaking as a tool that will preserve skiing as we’ve known it in past decades. Sliding down mountains is a kind of human play that needs just-right weather conditions, and our changing climate is making it harder to find those conditions. Like dragging a giant tarp across an Alpine ski hill, making snow is more stopgap than solution. 

“Snowmaking is a fantastic operational tool,” says Adrienne Isaac, the NSAA’s director of marketing and communications. “There’s going to come a point where we can’t do more if emissions are allowed to go unchecked. We are on this trajectory. Technology can only take us so far—at a certain point it becomes too warm.” 

Additional NSAA sustainability efforts include the Climate Challenge program targeting the ski industry’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Since the program’s creation 11 years ago, the NSAA estimates, the Climate Challenge has reduced emissions by 126,629 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. A growing number of resorts, including Massanutten, which is a Climate Challenge participant, are installing solar panels and wind turbines to help power resort facilities. (Using solar to run snow guns is tricky, as snowmaking mostly happens at night.) The ski-industry behemoth Vail Resorts has committed to zero net emissions by 2030, combining overall energy-use reductions with investments in renewables and carbon offsets.

But Isaac also points to a growing understanding in the ski industry that climate change poses an existential threat and that solutions thus must be system-wide. The NSAA encourages Climate Challenge participants to bring the fight to Congress, attend government hearings, and lobby utility providers to increase clean and renewable energy sources. “We are fighting for our own survival as an industry and also for the survival of our communities and for outdoor recreation in general,” Isaac says. “It goes way beyond skiing. It’s a human issue.”