Global warming represents the greatest threat to the snow sports industry. One response will be to increase snowmaking, which is already requisite in eastern ski areas. Ironically, increased snowmaking produces more greenhouse gases, a proven cause of global warming. However investments in technology can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from snowmaking, and lower energy costs. It should also be noted that practices to promote tree regeneration and growth make small contributions toward reducing ski area carbon footprints.
While snowmaking costs money, natural snow remains a free resource. Thus there is an economic incentive to take actions that will maximize the retention of natural snow on trails.
Impacts upon the Forest
Snowmaking is a energy-intensive industrial practice that requires compressors or fans, water pumps, grooming machinery, water, electricity and diesel fuel. Aside from the impacts of constructing a snowmaking system in the alpine environment, snowmaking also takes a toll on the forest surrounding it. Artificial snow is generally heavy and dense with a high water content so it sticks to trails, and is durable so it will stand up to repeated machine grooming. These qualities also make manmade snow stick to trees within trails and along the edges that are within snowgun plumes.
Incrementally over time, tree limbs snap under the snow's weight and fall to the ground one by one. These impacted trees slowly loose their canopies, and as the result, the photosynthetic capacity of these trees is diminished. Once trees loose over 50% of their crowns they are in grave danger because they cannot produce enough sugars to sustain themselves. As snowmaking continues year after year, trees within snowgun plumes starve and die.
This is clearly evident at eastern ski areas which have practiced snowmaking for a long time. These signs include:
Snowmaking is destructive to trees within its reach, and this must be recognized and planned for. It is unrealistic to think a glade can be sustained on a trail with snowmaking, such as shown to the right. Wide, open trails are best for snowmaking, and there is no need to pretend otherwise. It is likely that there are snowgun configurations, technology, and snowmaking practices that minimize tree mortality and halt incremental trail widening.
Snowmaking is expensive, whereas natural snow simply falls from the sky. As energy prices continue to rise, natural snow will become an increasingly valuable resource that should not be squandered. The snow sports customer demands both wide trails with deep artificial bases, and the more elemental, untamed experience of natural snow and trees. Most ski areas will continue to strike a balance between the two, driven by their business models and the market niche they choose to occupy.