Six reasons why artificial snow has no future

Downhill skiing’s sustainability crisis

At Responsible Travel, we love active, outdoor winter holidays, and we sell lots of them. We always strive to promote holidays that cause the least damage to the environment and create benefits for local communities, too. Consequently, our focus has always been on wilderness winter activities that – where possible – don’t require huge infrastructure, such as ski touring, cross country skiing, dog sledding, snow shoeing and wildlife tracking. We acknowledge that downhill skiing has more impact on the environment than most other winter activities, but do not have an ideological objection to it. We understand its popularity and recognise that many Alpine communities depend on it for survival. What we are opposed to is artificial snow.
Since the mid 1980s, snowfall has steadily decreased in the northern hemisphere’s mountainous regions. Snow arrives later and melts earlier, too. But rather than allowing the snow to dictate when we can ski, resorts have responded by manufacturing it using cannons. Artificial snow may once have seemed like a handy get out of jail card, keeping resorts open whatever the weather, but an avalanche of recent research reveals how artificial snow is damaging to the environment, the local communities that rely on it, and ultimately to the skiing industry itself.

The six sins of artificial snow

  1. A huge number of European ski resorts now rely on artificial snow. A 2017 BBC report suggested 50 percent of Swiss slopes and 70 percent in Austria can now be snowed artificially. Once used to patch up balding ski runs, artificial snow is now used to guarantee and extend the ski season, providing guaranteed snow during the lucrative Christmas and Easter period.

  2. Vast amounts of water are needed to manufacture artificial snow – between 200 and 600 litres per square meter and season of artificial snow. [1] That water is being taken when water resources are naturally at their lowest and it also coincides with peak tourism season, when tens of thousands of tourists accumulate in a few big skiing areas, consuming water for cooking, showering and laundry. In some regions of the French Alps more than 50% of the available drinking water is directly used for snow production each day. [2] More than one third of the ski resorts in the French Alps experience shortages of water and in a quarter of all resorts, snow production competes directly with human consumption needs. [3] It’s safe to assume that this impacts on local people, creating the costly expense of piping water in to meet demand, which in turn potentially drives up water bills for local people and holiday costs for skiers.

  3. Artificial snow brings safety concerns, too. It is four times harder than natural snow, so falling on it carries a far greater risk of injury. In addition, snow shortages mean more and more skiers cram onto the few narrow runs that are open.

  4. The enjoyment of skiing is at stake. Rather than being in a natural environment, the skier is essentially in a man-made one. Unnatural looking mountains, with ribbons of artificial snow threading down through brown slopes, do not resemble the pristine winter wilderness that most skiers hope to enjoy. Instead of swishing down smooth slopes, skiers are navigating concrete hard artificial snow, grassy patches and even rocks.

  5. Wildlife and the environment are impacted negatively by artificial snow production in numerous ways. In Bulgaria, the Bansko ski resort, already fully equipped with artificial snow machines, was blocked from expanding with 333km of new slopes and 113km of ski lifts, by the efforts of campaigners. The resort belongs to Pirin National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s one of Europe’s last wildernesses; a place where brown bears, grey wolves and the lesser spotted eagle live. The expansion of Bansko ski resort would have directly threatened their habitat. Elsewhere in Europe, black grouse and capercaillie that are vulnerable to disruption during winter, when they need to conserve energy, are being disturbed by the noise of snow cannons and night time illumination. Artificial snow is also harmful to the environment. It’s made from spring and drinking water, not natural rain or snow, and so its chemical composition and higher mineral content causes fertilising effects, harming species diversity by promoting more woody plants, shrubs and weeds. [4]

  6. The long term financial viability of using artificial snow is in question. The cost of producing artificial snow is estimated to be in the order of 2 to 2.50 Euros per m³ of snow [5], a cost that is either passed on to skiers or covered in the form of government subsidy. It’s also a cost that isn’t going to go away, as the future for natural snowfall looks bleak. Many ski resorts at low altitude in the European Alps are expected to have very little snow left within the next one to two decades [6]. The OECD think tank warned as far back as 2007 that, of 666 Alpine ski resorts, roughly 40% would no longer get enough snow to operate a 100 day season (the period needed to make money) if the region warmed by another 2°C. You could argue that manufacturing artificial snow is like using a Band Aid to fix a broken leg.

What would Responsible Travel like to see?

At Responsible Travel, we’re not against downhill skiing, but we are against artificial snow. We prefer skiers – or anyone after the bracing fun of a winter sports break – to be able to enjoy real snow. Here’s how.

  1. We promote those regions and resorts that don’t depend on artificial snow, because their altitude or location means natural snowfall occurs dependably and snow cannons are not in use. A huge number of our winter snow holidays take place in Scandinavia, whose northerly latitudes mean snowfall is more probable.

  2. We promote other winter activities, including ski touring, cross country skiing, dog sledding, snow shoeing and wildlife tracking. Where possible, these wilderness winter activities make the most of natural snow.

  3. We are clear about the right time of year to travel. If we do market holidays that use resorts where artificial snow production takes place, we ask the holiday supplier to specify when travellers can visit and experience the real thing, when the likelihood of snow being manufactured is low. This is both responsible and sensible. Historically, skiing took place when mountain conditions permitted. The first skiers, over a century ago, would not have expected snow to be guaranteed from November to April, but the skiing industry’s focus on Christmas, when snowfall can be patchy, and on extending the season into Easter – which can occur as late as mid April – has increased the demand for artificial snow.

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Finland Northern Lights holiday, Wilderness Auroras

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What’s the future for ski resorts?

Diminished snowfall and the financial demands of producing artificial snow, some of which is passed on to skiers, suggests skiing will become a much smaller industry in the future. Statistics already show it’s becoming less popular – too expensive, too unpredictable. Globally, some 30 million fewer people spent a day on the ski slopes in the 2015-2016 season, compared with 2008-2009. Many resorts in the Alps are only keeping going with the aid of public subsidies. [7]

This decline of course impacts local, mountain communities, many of which owe their continued existence to ski resorts. Skiing has in many parts of Europe stemmed the tide of migration away from rural regions and towards cities, but a great many of these local communities are wholly dependent on the winter income from skiing.

A solution doesn’t lie in creating artificial snow, and it doesn’t lie in boycotting skiing altogether. Instead, travellers need to think responsibly before booking a skiing holiday, considering not only where and when they travel, but how. Many resorts in Europe can be reached by train, for instance.

Ski resorts also need to diversify, offering a wider range of winter activities. Many of these activities cost less than traditional downhill skiing, such as cross country skiing and snow shoeing which don’t involve costly lift passes; some don’t even depend on snow, such as winter walking.

Ski resorts need to market themselves as summer destinations, too; a cool escape from the heat of lower altitudes, where you can cycle, hike, rock climb, even paraglide. This won’t replace the volume of visitors that come to ski in winter, and there is obviously huge competition when it comes to walking and cycling breaks around the world, but it would contribute to the sustainability and viability of ski resorts in the sad, but very real absence of natural snow.


Primary research source: The production of artificial snow - ecological, social and economical aspects by Julia Snajdr

[1] Doering, A. et al (1996)
[2] Strasser 2008; Campion 2002 in De Jong, C., Masure P., Barth T. (2008).
[3] Bravard 2008 in De Jong, C. (2009).
[4] Doering, A. et al (1996).
[5] De Jong, C. (2009).
[6] De Jong, C. (2009) (2).
[7] The Economist 25th Jan 2018
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Guttorm Flatabø] [Snow cannon: Ruth Hartnup] [Dog sled Swedish Lapland: momo] [Melting snow: Richard Allaway]