Five-ring Circus

The Extreme Steps China Took to Make Enough Fake Snow for the Olympics

Snow guns, snowcats, and dealing with all that pesky real snow.

A snowcat and a snow gun.
Snowmaking machines at the Genting Snow Park. Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

A century ago, it would’ve been unthinkable to hold a Winter Olympics in Beijing. The area receives less than six inches of natural snowfall in a typical year due to a monsoon cycle that pushes cold yet dry air into the south. Despite the fact that Beijing was just hit by an unexpected blizzard that will delay some of the competitions, organizers went into the event planning to use 100 percent artificial snow, a first in Olympics history. (Some of the natural snow that recently fell will actually have to be removed, because organizers don’t have time to smooth out the bumps it creates on the courses.) While artificial snow has blanketed Olympic slopes since the 1980s, supplementing natural snowfall, the sheer magnitude of China’s efforts to create wintry conditions for these games is unprecedented.

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An estimated 49 million gallons of water was needed to produce enough snow for the games, a formidable challenge since Beijing suffers from recurring droughts and a declining supply of drinkable water due to global warming. Organizers resorted to diverting water from the Baihebao Reservoir into the nearby Guishui River, which is usually dry in the winter. To save groundwater, they also paused irrigation on tens of thousands of acres of farmland. According to Olympics officials, the water that is produced from the melting snow will be stored in another reservoir and two lakes for use in irrigation, tourism, landscaping, and agriculture.

More than $60 million was spent on equipment from the artificial snow company TechnoAlpin, which is based in Italy. The main components of the setup include snow guns, which look like cannons and use compressed air to break water into small droplets that then freeze in the cold; more than 40 miles of pipe, which transports the water; and snowcats, which look like tractors that pack and smooth out the snow. After the Olympics, China is planning to use some of the venues for snow sports schools and hubs of snow manufacturing.

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According to Michael Mayr, TechnoAlpin’s Asia sales manager, there are two main types of snow that are being used at these games: wet snow and dry snow. “On our machines we can set the snow quality in terms of the density of the snow,” he said. “This depends on how much water we are going to put through the machine.” Which kinds of fake snow are being used for which events, and what does it mean for athletic performance? Read on.

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Wet Snow

Wet snow has a lower air-to-water ratio and is thus icier. This sort of snow is used primarily for the alpine events because the edges of the skis can cut into the snow, allowing the athletes to reach speeds as fast as 90 miles per hour. The iciness of the snow also helps ensure that there aren’t too many bumps created as the skiers go down. To ensure that the conditions are icy enough, organizers use injection bars that spray water onto the snow as a last step for preparing a course. Mikaela Shiffrin, the star alpine skier representing the U.S., has praised the snow in the Yanqing competition zone as “grippy” and “aggressive.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin skis during the women’s downhill, an alpine event.
Icier snow allows alpine skiers to reach higher speeds. Tom Pennington/Getty Images
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Dry Snow

Dry snow has a higher air-to-water ratio and is closer to what you would see at a run-of-the-mill ski resort. Every other event besides alpine skiing and the ice sports takes place on drier snow. One of the advantages of dry snow is that it’s softer and thus makes it easier for athletes to climb up hills, which is crucial in cross country skiing and the biathlon. These sports occur at slower speeds compared to the alpine events, as the skis aren’t really cutting into the snow in the same way.

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Quentin Fillon Maillet of Team France in action during the men's biathlon relay.
Athletes need softer snow in order to go uphill in the biathlon. Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
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Another important aspect of dry snow is that you can use it to build structures like ramps, which are used in the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events, and replicas of the Great Wall. Because this snow is softer, the athletes don’t experience as much impact when they land their jumps, so the conditions are a bit safer.

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Austria's Anna Gasser jumping off of a ramp.
Dry snow is better for building structures like ramps. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP Getty Images

In sports like Nordic combined or ski jumping, the athletes are better able to slow down in drier, softer snow when they land. “When you land from the big jump, if it’s ice, you would fly away immediately,” said Mayr. “So the snow needs a certain kind of structure in order for them to land safely.”

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 Jared Shumate of Team United States mid-air during the ski jump.
It’s safer for ski jumpers to land on softer, drier snow. Lars Baron/Getty Images
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