Armed and dangerous: the winter snow guns
- Armed and dangerous: the winter snow guns
By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
07 January 2007
It's deep winter, the season when smart Europeans strap their skis to
the 4x4 and head for the Alps or Pyrenees to enjoy an exhilarating
swoosh down the slopes - accompanied by the rumble and waste of the
artificial snow machine.
The snow gun, which sprays these still-green slopes with the fluffy
white stuff nature is increasingly reluctant to provide, has become
as much a fixture of the winter sports scene as the chair lift, but
much more environmentally damaging.
An estimated 98 per cent of Europe's ski resorts now have snow
makers, and some places are totally dependent on fake flakes. Without
these groaning monsters that belch fake snow from one end while
consuming huge amounts of power at the other, no ski resort in the
Catalan Pyrenees would have opened this season.
The use of snow cannons has doubled in the past 10 years. More than
2,000 machines were working the Catalan pistes at the start of this
season - 547 of them in the resort of Baqueira Beret- whitening 280km
But the energy used to keep the machines spewing snow has tripled.
Catalonia's nine main ski regions have contracted some 9,000kW of
electricity to keep their business alive - enough to power a town of
15,000 people. Some resorts face bills of 300,000 (£200,000) to keep
snow on the ground. That's after paying 10,000 for each cannon.
This squandering of power has been forced upon Catalonia by the lack
of snow, which threatens one of Spain's most important economic
sectors: the high-end tourism market. This year is worse than before -
with visitor numbers down 50 per cent - not only because of the mild
winter, but what cold air there is lacks precipitation and hence
snow. This means thirsty snow machines must draw on water from
depleted lakes and reservoirs.
The campaigners Ecologists in Action say it's a vicious circle: lack
of snow increases the use of machines, which boosts the emission of
CO2, increases global warming and makes the snow even scarcer.
Jose Enrique Vazquez, an environmental expert, says resorts could
curb energy waste if they installed renewable systems. So next time
you sweep down the snowy Pyrenees, watch out for wind turbines among
the cable cars.
* Americans Wayne Pierce, Art Hunt and Dave Richey created the first
snow machine in 1950.
* The average Alpine resort has 100-200 snow machines, but in the
Dolomites it can be up to 300 or more.
* Snow guns typically run for 1,000 hours a year using 18kW an hour.
* A resort with 300 machines uses 5.4m kW a year.