Clare Ip – Since its first use in winter sports in the 1980s, large events such as the Winter Olympics
have used artificial snow to enhance the quality of their venues. The 2022 Beijing Olympics used a record-breaking 90% of artificial snow, with an estimated 49 million gallons of water used to produce fake snow.
As a city that received only 2cm of snowfall in the past year, Beijing’s venues originally
consisted of only rocks and dirt despite being in the middle of winter. The amount of natural snow simply wasn’t enough to accommodate the sports events, and the city could only resort to using snow machines to create a suitable site for athletes.
According to Professor Carmen de Jong from the University of Strasbourg in France, the
Beijing Olympics “could be the most unsustainable Winter Olympics ever held.” An estimated 192 million gallons of water, about the size of 300 Olympic swimming pools, was used just for the city of Zhangjiakou for snowmaking. Additionally, networks of pipes were constructed to supply the snow machines with water from existing reservoirs as event organizers refrained from using excessive amounts of drinking water.
Similarly, in ski resorts in other parts of the world, water has actually been redirected
from their natural course in order to provide for snow guns, meaning that they initially had a very different purpose. This can possibly cause a lack of water in other areas where it’s needed much more.
Despite being made mostly of water, studies have revealed concerns over the chemical
components of the snow. Snowmax, a product that is made of proteins derived from a certain microbe, is used to keep the snow from melting as quickly. While companies claim that they are harmless because of their naturally-occurring nature, excessive amounts of it have led scientists to further investigate their impacts on nature and human health.
This slower melting rate in artificial snow has its detrimental effects on surrounding
biodiversity and organisms as well. Because the snow would be creating a layer of ice between plants and the air, this prevents oxygen from entering, leading to the death of organisms trapped below. According to the American Chemical Society, these phenomena have the potential to “alter the biodiversity of a local ecosystem.”
The Olympics saw increased injuries from athletes as a result of skiing on artificial snow
as well. US Olympic cross-country skier Rosie Brennan said, “man-made snow doesn’t act the same as natural snow. It tends to be much firmer, it get icier faster, and it’s a faster surface”. This is especially risky for nordic skiing athletes, who require different types of skis that can cause them to fall and injure themselves when they are taking turns on the slopes.
To fulfill its mission of being green, open, inclusive, and clean, Beijing has used
renewable energy to power all of its venues. While this has helped promote the Olympics as a sustainable event, global warming has prevented them from fully adhering to their goal. With the temperature rising all around the globe, it’s bound to create more issues than even artificial snow can’t solve.