Skiing is definitely one of the most popular ways to enjoy a vacation. The cold temperatures and layers of snow, combined with the sunny skies, are incredibly mood-boosting – and skiing is an amazingly exhilarating activity! However, ski resorts are struggling to keep up with the demand for snow in seasons where cold temperatures are not as common. This is made worse by global warming.
Ski slopes are now more reliant on manmade snow than natural snow, and they both have their pros and cons. However, it can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two – especially when you are skiing on them.
We have explored the main differences between manmade and natural snow so that you can be more aware of which type of surface you will be zooming down in the winter!
What Is It Like to Ski on Manmade Snow?
Manmade snow has its pros and cons when it comes to the quality of your skiing. Because it is wetter than natural snow, this can make the surface feel much denser. As well as this, when you look at the microscopic makeup of machine snow, it is thick and tightly packed together. This heaviness can be a bane for some skiers, as it is thought that it slows them down.
However, there is a huge perk of this structure. Because it uses so much water in its makeup, the cold temperatures can easily turn this to ice. This icier surface makes the skiing tracks faster to travel down.
While many skiers will enjoy this increased speed – especially thrill-seekers – this does come with danger warnings. As well as this, the sides of manmade snow courses aren’t full of snow, but of rock and muddy. This will hurt if you slip off the icy course onto the hard ground!
What Is It Like to Ski on Natural Snow?
Natural snow has a much more delicate construction. Its crystalline nature is far more complex than manmade snow, but these complex branches are so thin. While this does make natural snow lighter as it falls, and it looks incredibly fluffy once it has landed, these snowflake structures are easy to break.
This makes natural snow more buoyant as you ski on it, and it does feel lighter to travel on. However, this breakable structure can slow you down – compared to manmade snow. This is because natural snow is dryer than machine snow, which means that it lacks the icy texture to create huge speeds.
Which Snow is Better for Skiing On?
Interestingly, you will often find that most resorts use a mixture of manmade and natural snow to form their slopes. This allows ski resorts to open earlier/later than the snow seasons, which encourages a larger tourist footfall.
However, it is difficult to determine which snow is actually better to ski on – this ultimately depends on your preference! The manmade snow allows you to travel down slopes faster, so those who like fast slopes will find machine snow better. It is also stronger, so it will hold together better.
But natural snow is soft, easy to fall on (if you are a beginner) and there truly is nothing better than a fresh, natural snowfall. Also, as it is a drier substance, it takes longer to turn to slush than manmade snow. This means that you can make the most of natural snow in its basic form for longer!
How is Natural Snow Formed?
It can be easy to take snow for granted. It just appears, and we’re always so pleased when it finally settles on the ground. But what takes place for natural snow to form?
This might sound simple, but snow is formed in the clouds. Clouds are made when there is too much water vapor trying to settle in the air. This vapor then becomes water droplets, and these droplets are the visible clouds in the sky. However, when the temperature drops, these water droplets freeze and fall to the ground.
Snowflakes are essentially these tiny water droplets that form into delicate crystals. Interestingly, these flakes are typically formed around dust/pollen particles! It also takes around 100,000 water droplets from the sky to create a snow crystal.
Natural snow grows as it falls closer to the earth’s surface, and each one is completely different from the next. This happens because the flakes will form around different dust particles, and they will travel at different rates/along different paths. This unique path, combined with the varying air currents, will change how the crystals are formed at a microscopic level.
The natural snow that you will find on ski slopes will either be fresh powder or packed snow that has been skied/walked on already.
How is Manmade Snow Created?
Manmade snow has a similar foundation to natural snow. While it doesn’t come from the clouds in the sky, it has a starting point of tiny water droplets. An artificial pump will force these millions and millions of water droplets into the air, and as soon as they are sent out they will freeze. They will then land on the ground, with a very similar appearance to natural snow.
There are actually two main types of snow machines that are commonly used for ski slopes. The only difference between them is one uses compressed air to force out the water droplets, and the other uses a fan that will scatter the water into the air.
Both of these machines use snow inducers, such as Snomax, which creates longer-lasting snow. These snow inducers are created using proteins that act as extra nuclides. This essentially means that they encourage the crystallization process, which is what forms snowflakes. These proteins are then easily dissolved in water.
The protein acts as the specks of dust and pollen that natural snow would form around. However, these proteins mean that the artificial snowflakes can be formed at warmer temperatures, which again allows ski slopes to bring in skiers before the typical snow season.
Which Type of Snow Lasts Longer?
Technically, manmade snow lasts longer. This is because it is resistant to rain, as it is made up of so much water. Where natural snowfall would be degraded by rain and it can’t retain the cold temperatures for as long, manmade snow can stay in its form when water hits it. This also makes manmade snow a brilliant foundation for natural snowfall to land on.
However, manmade snow becomes slushy faster, as it is made up of so much water already. So, for the quality of skiing, you might find that natural snow gives you a better experience of the slopes for a longer period of time – even though it doesn’t physically last as long.
What Factors Affect the Creation of Manmade Snow?
Snow machines are expensive. Electricity is going to cost a huge amount of money – particularly at the rate they use the snow machines. As well as this, there are the hidden costs for infrastructure (to get the water, air, and electricity into the machines), the labor, and the computer systems to organize the machines.
As the cost of artificial snow is so high, ski resorts have to be particularly careful when deciding on the perfect time to fill their snowless slopes. It can cost around $2000 to fill one acre of ground with manmade snow, so it is important to get the timing right!
However, ski resorts do clearly deem this cost worth it in the long run. Without the option to use artificial snow to make up their snow slopes in seasons that wouldn’t typically have natural snowfall, the ski industry could face a huge loss of over $1 billion a year. So, having this manmade snow to keep resorts open for up to 6 months does make the other huge costs worth it.
Types of Snow Machine
The first type of snow machine uses compressed air to spread its water droplets into cold air. It does this by shooting the water out at incredibly high speeds, with the compressed air as the catalyst, which then encourages the water to split up into small particles. The lightweight nature of these tiny particles helps the snow travel a huge distance across the slopes.
There are pros and cons to this method. The main advantage of compressed air is that it uses far less electricity to form the snow. This is because it mainly relies on the air already in the area to move water, which is environmentally friendly. As well as this, it actually travels further!
However, compressed air machines do need two inputs – water and air. This can put unnecessary pressure on the surroundings to ‘produce’ for the ski slopes, and there is less control involved with this.
The second method uses a fan to spread a stream of water into the cold air. While this method doesn’t need air to create the snow, which reduces the necessity for other external factors, it does use a huge amount of electricity to power the fan. This clearly poses a huge environmental issue, as the electricity is going to need fuel – which may be from an artificial source that can do some damage.
Labor costs are actually the biggest operating expense for most ski resorts. Overseeing the creation of this snow requires a huge amount of manpower, as there are so many different elements to keep an eye on.
As well as this, there is a lot of training that goes into manning artificial snow machines, and all of the workforces need to be highly skilled to make sure everything runs smoothly. Their tasks will involve managing the machines, maneuvering them around the ski slopes to make sure all of the areas are covered, and then running the snowplows to push the snow evenly around the courses.
As has been previously mentioned, the creation of manmade snow obviously comes with a huge amount of energy usage. Depending on the efficiency of the machine (and the type of machine), it is estimated that anywhere between 1 and 14kwh (KiloWatts an hour) is needed to fill one cubic meter of snow.
This is costly, and all forms of electricity have an environmental impact. These electricity outputs go towards the pumps for the compressed air, the fans, and the pressure jets to spread the water droplets at a huge distance.
A huge amount of water is needed to cover a full ski slope in manmade snow. If you think about how 100,000 water droplets are necessary for a natural snowflake to form, then this puts into perspective how much water should be collected to create artificial flakes.
It is estimated that 401 liters of water are needed to create just 35 cubic feet of artificial snow. For reference, this equates to 90 packed basketballs. This amount of snow can be formed from the machine in one minute, which is incredibly rapid.
However, this does have its disadvantages. While most of the water used for this snow will slowly make its way back to its original source (after it has melted), there is some water that won’t make its way to the homes and communities that need it further down the mountains.
These communities are having their resources depleted for ski slopes, and this also poses a risk to the animals living in these areas too – especially the water animals who need it to survive.
Where natural snow requires freezing temperatures (0 degrees Celsius) for its water droplets to crystallize, manmade snow requires at least -2 degrees Celsius to form long-lasting snow that won’t freeze as soon as it is made. This is because it doesn’t have the same height that natural snow has when constructing its snowflakes, and it will be colder higher up towards the earth’s atmosphere than it will be near the ground.
However, if there are warmer temperatures (higher than -2) and manmade snow is needed, then the machines can be set to create smaller water droplets. This means that they will form more easily, but it will produce less snow.
It is difficult to find the right balance for snow machines. If it is too warm, they can’t create snow, but if it is too cold then they run the risk of the water freezing. This can cause freezing pipes, which will then explode and ruin the machines. So, they thrive best in colder temperatures of between -2 degrees Celsius and -5 degrees Celsius.
Snow machines do need low humidity to function properly. It is difficult to get cold and dry temperatures and humidity at the same time, and obviously, these factors are out of our control when it comes to creating snow on demand.
Interestingly, those who use the snow machines use a wet-bulb temperature to decide whether they are able to use the machines. This has a thermometer on it, that measures the combination of temperature and humidity. As long as there is low humidity, snow machines can actually still produce a good amount of snow in higher temperatures – around 3 or 4 degrees Celsius.
Are There Any Limitations to Making Artificial Snow?
The main limitation to making artificial snow is the environmental consideration. The pumps for compressed air machines are often run by diesel engines, which produce lots of air pollution. As well as this, the water that is used is taken from locally sourced lakes and rivers – but animals and plants live in these, and use them to survive.
The other main limitation to making artificial snow is cold temperatures and low humidity. If ski resorts aren’t able to get their desired natural snowfall, then it is hoped that it will be cold enough for the snow machines to produce a good amount of snow. However, since they require temperatures below freezing to produce a solid snow foundation, this can be quite tricky to manifest!
To Sum Up
The main difference between natural snow and manmade snow is the construction of their ‘snowflakes’. While they both form around particles, using a huge amount of water droplets to crystallize in the cold air, natural snow has a far more delicate makeup that makes it softer and incredibly breakable. This means that skiers can experience more buoyancy when traveling on natural snow.
Manmade snow has a thicker construction that means it creates much denser surfaces. It also contains a lot more water than natural snow, so it becomes icy very quickly. This can increase the speed at which skiers can travel on manmade snow slopes!