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What is Artificial Snow and Why Does it Suck - Or Does It?

Updated: Apr 3

If I'm being honest, it wasn't something I ever really gave a thought to during my skiing life. Then two things started happening; one, I started to ski more at indoor snow centres, particularly the Snow Centre at Hemel Hempstead but also at Chill Factore Manchester and the sadly now closed centre in Braehead, Glasgow. Secondly, I started skiing much more in resorts that had used artificial snow to make up for a lack of the real stuff.


As a result of both of these experiences, I grew to notice the difference between the real and artificial snow. This blog isn't to have a dig at indoor snowdomes or resorts that have to defer to using artificial snow. More, it's to explore that there is indeed a difference you can feel, and how to adapt your skiing to different snow surfaces. I will also try and dispel some of the myths surrounding artificial snow, in particular it being bad for the environment.

 
 

Real vs. Artificial Snow

First of all what is the difference between the two?


Surely there isn't that much difference? Snow is snow, regardless of how it is formed?


Well, not quite. To begin with, "real" snow forms under specific circumstances, starting with a raindrop. A raindrop forms when water condenses around dust particles, often microscopic. When these get cold enough, such as high above mountains during winter time, the raindrops freeze, creating snowflakes.


It is this freezing process that creates the beautiful snowflake patterns that we so often associate with winter. You know, the ones you used to cut out in primary school by folding paper six times and attacking it with a pair of blunt scissors to create Christmas decorations. It also means you get a nice, large snowflake, with a comparatively broad surface area, and pointy at its edges.


This geometric beauty means snow that has fallen remains comparatively less dense, with plenty of air space around it; light powder to blow through between the trees scoring nice face shots, and you hope the pointy edges round off to reduce the risk of facets, buried weak layers and big avalanches.


So what, therefore, is "artificial" snow? Artificial snow is everything real snow is not. It is formed by blasting high pressure water out of a cannon so it mists into cold air - ideally -4 degrees Celsius or below. Under these conditions, the water does not have an opportunity to condense against a dust particle and form into a snowflake slowly. Instead, it freezes instantly as small drops of water, creating frozen ice rather than snow. It is therefore more dense, with more water per cubic volume of snow, and does not hold together with other snow so well.



 
 

Is Artificial Snow Inherently Bad?

The short answer is no, and for several reasons.


Without the science behind artificial snow, you would not have indoor snow centres. These facilities are ground breaking for the advancement of snowsports amongst communities that often don't have the means to access the mountains. Alongside school groups, charities such as Snowcamp and Disability Snowsports UK - aimed at helping disadvantaged youth and those with additional needs respectively find purpose through snowsports - operate a wide variety of schemes at these facilities in the UK.


The general public also benefits hugely. Recent surveys have found that around 70% of people who ski at snowdomes in the UK do not then go on to ski in the mountains. Rather than seeing this as a missed opportunity, it should be celebrated that so many more people are engaging in snowsports across the country than would otherwise have the chance before.


Often there are accusations lobbied against artificial snow and the manufacturing process that it is very environmentally unfriendly, drawing water and power from other sources that would otherwise need it and which are not very "green". This might well be the case in some areas, but out in ski resorts this is hardly the case. A large number of resorts especially in the Alps source their energy from renewables, particularly hydropower, or, in France's case, other non-carbon dioxide producing sources such as nuclear.


The water is also collected from meltwater and stored in pools, similar to tarns in the north of England - that is, depressions dug out by glaciers that then fill with water, creating lakes. The same water that fell on the mountains one winter creating real snow is therefore fed back into the system to create artificial snow the next.



 


 

So Does it Really Suck?

Okay, maybe I was too harsh on artificial snow in my title.


But, there is a difference when you are skiing on it. Artificial snow is heavier and more dense, making it more difficult to manoeuvre your skis over it, around it and through it, especially as it begins to form into crud and moguls. Similarly, because of this density, it holds an edge far less well than real snow.


On top of this, because it is more dense and has a greater water content compared to real snow, it forms boilerplate and ice sheets far easier than real snow. And all of this can happen at once! A smooth boilerplate surface covered in dense, sticky powder bumps that can't hold an edge or be skied through well.


This all brings an extra challenge, especially to novice skiers. The next time you are out skiing, particularly at lower altitude resorts, keep an eye out for the feeling of the snow beneath your skis. It can be a warning sign of difficult conditions to come, especially in spring time freeze-thaw cycles firm things up in the morning and soften them up in the afternoon.

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