Thank serendipity for artificial snow. In the 1940s, Canadian researchers were studying the way ice forms on jet engines when they decided to spray water through one in a refrigerated wind tunnel. The result was an indoor snow squall, which gave ski fanatics on hand an idea: man-made powder. Soon after, snowmaking machines began popping up in New England. These days, nearly every resort on the planet relies on artificial snow to boost its base depth—or allow skiing outright. In fact, 283 of the 319 ski areas in the National Ski Areas Association employ snowmaking. And machines are infinitely more sophisticated, pumping out feet of snow at a time.
As climate change intensifies, artificial snow is only going to become more critical for resorts—one reason they’re often secretive about snowmaking practices (and its cost). But we convinced Massachusetts-based HKD Snowmakers to give us an inside look at the Halo fan gun, its most advanced machine. Here’s how it’s done.
Blowing It Out
A fan projects snow 60 feet in the air while the gun oscillates, spreading snow over an acre at a time. This machine runs on an electric 32.5-horsepower engine. On average, two-thirds of a ski area’s energy is devoted to snowmaking.
Minuscule globules of water measuring just 30 microns are shot through four nozzles. These freeze instantly, then mix with larger droplets blasted through 24 other nozzles, creating snow. To cover an acre of terrain with a foot of snow requires 200,000 gallons of water, which often comes from a mountain reservoir or tanks.
Compressed air and water allows the machine to make snow at above-freezing temperatures. A computer monitors the conditions and automatically kicks in when they’re right. For example, if the humidity is at 10 percent, a snow machine can produce snow at around 37 degrees.
By the Numbers
- $1.07: The amount annually, in billions, that U.S. ski resorts would lose without man-made snow, according to a nonprofit study.
- 500: The number of machines at West Virginia’s Snow-shoe Mountain, which has one of the country’s most powerful snow-making systems.
- 250 Million: Gallons of water used during a single season at most large East Coast ski areas.
- 80% The amount of water used in snowmaking, on average, returned to the watershed.
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