The basic idea of snow machines recreating snow is analogous to a six-year-old trying to build the Taj Mahal with Legos; I mean hey, it works, but its a clumsy attempt at the real thing. It’s the Velveeta of snow. A few years ago, if you were to drive to Grand Targhee, virtually every vehicle in the Teton Valley was sporting a bumper sticker slogan “Snow from heaven, not hoses.” The difference between manmade snow and natural snow is enormous and incomparable, and so is the riding and skiing experience.
Sure, I understand the painfully obvious difference between manmade and natural snow. I study snow. So the idea of manmade snow is a bit like knowing how sausage is made… I try not to think about it, and pretend it is good even though I know what is going on under my deck.
Fear and Loathing in Disneyand
And so, I decided to delve in to the obnoxious resort scene for the first time back in several years. I guess in my little brain I classify ‘resort snow’ and ‘backcountry snow’ in two different regimes. But after several years in the backcountry without having to succumb to the resort scene I forgot just how nauseating the experience could be.
Still, I tried focus on the fact I was there with friends, and ignore the Disneyland aspect of the outdoor experience. I tried to see past the parking, lift lines, dumbfounding attitude, and numerous selfies. It reminded me of the once lucky realization I had being stuck on a chairlift with a lone star genius. The asshat that tried to tell me that the beetle-kill orange tint on the ponderosa pine was a ‘color change’ phase of hibernation.. It would have been funny if he wasn’t serious.
But then there was that moment that made it all worthwhile – strapping in to get a line on the snow. Like being funneled down cattle run of predestined trails, or a hamster on a wheel. All the while, I couldn’t help but to notice the difference of the actual “snow”. Yeah it’s different, incomparably so. I think being fine-tuned in the backcountry and acutely aware of the snowpack under the deck, one certainly notices. Thankfully a microbrew in the parking lot tastes the same that it does in the backcountry, and friends are always friends.
Reminds me of this:
In the words of another backcountry rider that joined us that day, you have to look at resort riding as the ’24-hour-fitness’ of snowboarding, or treat it like a rock climbing gym.. It’s a place to improve technique, and stay in great shape.
The difference between artificial and natural snow
But the snow… One could dedicate an entire thesis (it has been done) of the differences between manmade and natural snow. Since it was our topic in the parking lot with cold beers in hand, I thought it would be timely to point out the difference between the two.
Natural snow is the Burgeon Process and develops from frozen water vapor in the clouds when they cool, it then condenses in to intricate ice crystals and snowflakes. As the crystals grow and branch out they become elaborate lattice formations of complex dendritic arms. The more complex the structure and pattern, the softer the snow becomes. (See my article on Snow: How it is made).
Machine made snow on the other hand develops from water drops, not water vapor. Snow machines spit out compact clumps of frozen water droplets. This is why the snowpack at a resort turns slushy and icy more quickly – because of the water content of the snow. Manmade snow is simple frozen clumps of water gobs with a liquid-core.
Natural snow has an average snow to liquid ratio of 10:1, meaning that for every 10 inches of snow that falls and subsequently melts, it would produce 1 inch of liquid precipitation in the rain. On champagne powder days in the backcountry the moisture content can be as high as 30:1. Wet, heavy snow turns to ice MUCH faster than light, fluffy snow because of it’s added water content. Light, fluffy snow actually does not turn into ice as long as the snow itself doesn’t melt.
Much like snowpack morphs in to different forms after it has fallen, so too does manmade snow. Even when a resort gets fresh natural snow on top of the manmade snow layer it quickly changes form, especially due to the high water content beneath it, and redistribution from groomers. This is the reason large grooming machines have to redistribute the snow every evening. Grooming adds a makeshift layer of air pockets to mimic the air pockets of dendritic form of natural snow.Selingo, Jeffrey (2001-02-02). “Machines Let Resorts Please Skiers When Nature Won’t”. New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23.US patent 2676471, W. M. Pierce, Jr., “Method for Making and Distributing Snow”, issued 1950-12-14
Below, a comparison of 15x samples are shown; left manmade snow taken December 2014 from Arapaho Basin ski area, CO; right natural snow taken at Indian Peaks Wilderness, CO.
10X Loupe difference
Difference on Low Temperature Scanning Electron Microscope (LT-SEM)The difference as seen under a Low Temperature Scanning Electron Microscope. The image on the left shows mostly natural snow crystals with some man-made snow underneath. The image on the right shows the snow-ball shaped man-made snow that comes from snow guns.Stockli, Veronika. (2000). Characteristics of Artificial Snow and its Effect on Vegetation, Proceedings of the 2000 International Snow Science Workshop, Big Sky, MT.BBC News, accessed December 20, 2006. “The first artificial snow was made two years later, in 1952, at Grossinger’s resort in New York, USA. “ With permissions, Credit: Eric Erbe/USDA
Natural snow is so much more than mere frozen water droplets. With snow guns, you can actually take pure water down to minus-40 and not freeze it. Drop a fleck of dust in it however, which helps form a hexagonal array, and it will freeze. It’s all about the nucleators, temperature, and humidity.http://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/item/776“Making Snow”. About.com. Retrieved 2006-12-16.Robbins, Jim (May 24, 2010), “From Trees and Grass, Bacteria That Cause Snow and Rain”, The New York TimesJörgen Rogstam & Mattias Dahlberg (April 1, 2011), Energy usage for snowmaking
Curious how manmade snow is actually made?
I could dedicate an entire series to how manmade snow is made.. But the fact is, this is a backcountry blog, and writing about artificial snow is about as exciting as watching paint dry. If you are curious though, here’s a good primer on how it is done.
If you ride inbounds the majority of the season, you might want to examine the structure of your base and wax to conform with the crystal shape. I wrote an entire series that addresses structure and wax.
Look, I know that the snow technicians cringe when a person calls manmade snow, artificial snow. But that’s exactly what is. On everything but a molecular level it is nothing more than frozen droplets of water that mimic the real thing. Unless you are getting first chair on a powder day, you are hitting Velveeta snow. To get the champagne powder you have to free your heel, and earn the turns.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Selingo, Jeffrey (2001-02-02). “Machines Let Resorts Please Skiers When Nature Won’t”. New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23.|
|2.||↑||US patent 2676471, W. M. Pierce, Jr., “Method for Making and Distributing Snow”, issued 1950-12-14|
|3.||↑||Stockli, Veronika. (2000). Characteristics of Artificial Snow and its Effect on Vegetation, Proceedings of the 2000 International Snow Science Workshop, Big Sky, MT.|
|4.||↑||BBC News, accessed December 20, 2006. “The first artificial snow was made two years later, in 1952, at Grossinger’s resort in New York, USA. “|
|6.||↑||“Making Snow”. About.com. Retrieved 2006-12-16.|
|7.||↑||Robbins, Jim (May 24, 2010), “From Trees and Grass, Bacteria That Cause Snow and Rain”, The New York Times|
|8.||↑||Jörgen Rogstam & Mattias Dahlberg (April 1, 2011), Energy usage for snowmaking|