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The Snow Machines

Machine made snow has grown in Tahoe, but who does it help most?
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In a two-part series, Moonshine looks at how humans are inserting their hand in the weather process. Here, we look at the practice of snowmaking at ski resorts, and next month, we look at how cloud seeding can boost precipitation. Read part two, on cloud seeding, here.

“It’s kind of like painting,” said Jim Larmore, the senior mountain operations director at Northstar California Resort, pointing to an armada of snow guns spewing a fine crystalline mist into the silvery dawn light. “Too much water involved and it runs; it’s too wet.”

Larmore, with 40 years of experience in the ski industry, has the jolly demeanor of a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and loves to do it. He goes on to compare snowmaking to a soda production plant, or a sprinkler system, although the latter means something has gone terribly wrong and the guns are spraying water.

Pick your analogy, but it’s a combination of art, science, labor, and technology, all wrapped up in the goal of putting white stuff on the ground when Mother Nature doesn’t. Going into the winter of 2015/16, snowmaking may be playing a more pivotal role than ever for the state’s ski industry. After four years of suffering with below average snowfall, Lake Tahoe exemplifies the full spectrum of snowmaking efforts, from million dollar operations to nothing at all.

The New Powder Storm

I am told Northstar and Heavenly Mountain Resort, both owned by Vail Resorts, Inc., comprise the most sophisticated snowmaking operation in the Western U.S. At Northstar, up to 100 snow guns can run 24/7 when the weather is ripe, with the capacity to cover 75 percent of the mountain’s trails with a calibrated mixture of air and water that join forces to make snow — all backed by a 12,000 horsepower energy system to get that air and water where it needs to be.

Automation is also the name of the modern snowmaking game. I watch “Hutch” work with four computer screens to monitor and fine tune compression levels, water temperatures, and much more. Larmore adds that he can do most of what Hutch does via smartphone when needed.

The day I visited, in early November, optimism was pulsing through the morning cold. The first storm of the winter came in as rain, which saturated the dirt before dropping temps froze it solid. Then 12 inches of natural snow fell over two days. To boot, cold air and low humidity — the recipe for high-output snowmaking — was forecast for the week.

“This is looking like a very promising start,” Larmore said.

Promising is a refreshing term in the thirsty ski industry. In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown famously declared the Sierra snowpack to be 5 percent of the historical average, and the Central Sierra Snow Lab in Soda Springs recorded 130 inches of snow for the 2014/15 season, its all-time lowest recording since 1879, and many resorts in Tahoe received less than 200 inches.

Therefore, Northstar’s investments make good business sense, and they mimic the trend around the country, where snowmaking is growing. A few resorts in California, such as Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in Southern California, have almost taken nature out of the equation, and provide 100 percent snowmaking capabilities on their trails.

“In 2015, if you weren’t making snow, you weren’t a ski area,” said Tim Cohee, CEO of China Peak Mountain Resort in the central Sierra, and a longtime ski resort manager.  

A Contentious Commodity

Snowmaking lets resorts open earlier in the season, and keeps them alive during extended dry spells. But it also pulls on large amounts of power and water, and is very expensive, making some people cautious to tout snowmaking as a solution to low snow.

“Snowmaking is a way to mitigate climate change in the short term, but it is certainly not a long-term solution. Not only does it use valuable water resources that are likely to get more scarce over coming years, but it is the most energy-intensive operation on the mountain by far,” said Porter Fox, author of Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. “Not only are you using a lot of water that other people and communities might need, you are actually enlarging your carbon footprint by making snow. It seems kind of counterintuitive for a ski resort these days.”

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