Let it snow ... or they'll make it themselves
Technology allows ski resorts to stay open in warm weather.
Last updated 12/13/2021 at 3:39pm
TAOS - Several ski resorts in Northern New Mexico opened for business in November - despite virtually no natural snow on the ground.
To remedy this, ski resorts brought out their snowmaking machinery to create snow for snowboarders and skiers too eager to wait for the weather to change. As the planet continues to change and warm - these machines, which use millions of gallons of water for relatively small sections of ski runs, are becoming increasingly important to the economic viability of ski resorts.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Meteorologist Scott Overpeck said to expect a warmer and drier winter from Southern Colorado to the rest of New Mexico as a La Niña weather pattern is expected for this season.
"We're just kind of in that pattern where we've had a second year in a row where we've had La Niña conditions in the Pacific. When that happens, that changes our weather patterns so that the jet streams farther to the north. And we don't get quite as many storm systems into New Mexico as we would like and that allows for less precipitation and warmer conditions," Overpeck said.
Overpeck said that doesn't mean there won't be any upcoming winter storms or cold fronts, but they probably won't be as frequent.
The unseasonably warm temperatures this November and early December affected Angel Fire Resort's operations, for example, by delaying its opening ski run date from Dec. 10 to Dec. 17.
Patrick West, the snowmaking assistant manager for Angel Fire Resort, said that warm temperatures are his least favorite part of the job. Typically, snow is made below a temperature of 27 degrees Fahrenheit. West has to be constantly checking meteorological reports to check for the air temperature and moisture in the air to see if snow is ripe to make. He said he gets frustrated when he goes out at 12 a.m. ready to make snow only to discover that temperatures will be a degree or two higher than 27.
"It's very warm out, and we're hitting 60 degree temps in the daytime, and it takes so long to cool off by the nighttime you only get 'X' amount of hours to blow snow, actually. Normally, we're used to doing a 12-hour shift of blowing snow. Right now we've been roughly doing six hours," West said.
For West and other snowmakers, the colder the temperatures allows them to make snow more efficiently. West said they'll usually start in late November then shut down snowmaking by Feb. 1.
Angel Fire Resort has a crew of 10 to 12 people to make the snow, groom and maintain their skiable terrain of 560 acres. The team is split between three to four people on a day shift and night shift.
The tech to make snow is becoming more technologically sophisticated and more energy efficient. However, they are expensive to operate because of the amount of electricity they use, West said. "We would love to have fan guns everywhere but ... those are 480-volt, so running the power through the mountain is very expensive."
Some of the older, inefficient snowmaking equipment just doesn't make much sense economically to operate, according to West.
Fan guns, like the ones at the Resort, have about a 35-inch diameter cannon tube. Inside, the gun contains a massive fan, which creates its own high pressure air and is equipped with its own on-board air compressor. It is then fed a supply of high pressure water. Smaller guns can shoot at a range of about 30 feet, and the larger ones can shoot about a 75-yard range, West said. He said they have a few older manually operated snow guns. Others are automated with settings that can also track water usage.
When they're switched on, the guns make piles of snow.
West said you have to let the manmade snow "cure," or wait for the water to sink to the bottom and leech out. Then, using heavy equipment like a Snow Cat, they groom and spread out the snow along each run.
"Now there're bigger systems out there. These things are automated fully. They can go to a big ski resort that have 200 fan guns on the hill, and it takes three people to operate those. One person can sit on the computer and turn on 150 guns in three minutes," West said.
And as a snowboarder and skier himself, West said he can tell the difference between manmade snow and natural snow.
"It really depends on the weather conditions but it also depends on your snow makers and who you have on the ground checking the snow quality," West said.
Taos Ski Valley has 270 snow guns from different manufacturers to make snow on 600 acres: 198 "low energy, high efficiency" 30 foot tower guns, 40 Impulse Viper guns (used for specific areas the tower guns don't reach).
In an email statement, Taos Ski Valley said: "We have pumps that move water through a pipe throughout the mountain and air compressors that also move air through a separate pipe throughout the mountain. We have more than 300 hydrant locations on these two pipes that the guns connect to with hoses. The water pressure and air pressure are then mixed in the snow gun and a crystal is then formed as it leaves the gun head under these high pressures."
Ski valley officials said at max capacity they'll use 50 snow guns.
West said that during Thanksgiving week they were running 55 guns to create snow for a 3.5-mile ski run. Making snow for that length of ski run takes about five days, with full 12 hour shifts.
West estimates it also takes about 8 million gallons of groundwater to create snow for that size run, but said it doesn't go to waste once it melts.
"By springtime all that water replenishes the aquifers and goes back down to the creek so it's kind of fascinating," West said.
The Office of the State of Engineer's (OSE) Water Resource Allocation Program is responsible for managing water resources in New Mexico. Asked about water use monitoring from snowmaking at ski resorts, they responded with a written statement, explaining that water permits are not issued in cases of water waste and illegal use such as "any impairment to any nearby water right holders."
"Many ski resorts apply for a permit from the Office of the State Engineer to pump groundwater to use in the creation of artificial snow. When evaluating those permit applications, the OSE verifies that the ski resort owns the water right, whether the water will be put to beneficial use (in this case creating snow for ski resorts which can have a recreational and economic benefit)..."
In Durango, Colorado, at the Purgatory Resort, slopes manager Josh Hamill said they typically use 50 to 65 million gallons of water to make snow in a winter season on their snowmaking area of 250 acres.
Hamill said they also have about 100 pieces of snowmaking equipment, including snow guns and Snow Cats.
"All the guns kind of operate off of the same science, which is mixing air and water and the atmosphere. And then as it's falling out of the sky, what all you're really doing is you're breaking up the water particle to a certain size, so it's resistant as it's dropping to the ground, right?" said Hamill. "So, [on a] warmer night, you're going to hold that water particles are really small, because it's going to take longer to freeze as it's falling to the ground versus a really cold night you're going to want that water particle bigger because it's going to freeze [until] it accumulates more."
Hamill said an ongoing staffing shortage at the resort has somewhat hampered snowmaking efforts, but added that he's still able to rely on an existing "solid crew." Other problems he faces include the problems of fewer cold fronts and climbing prices for electricity and diesel. He said climate change worries him because he'll look at either a five-day or 10-day weather forecast and finds it's harder and harder to predict what the weather will do next.
"There's no real consistency to it. But it's definitely changing. And I hope it's just a cycle," Hamill said.
Retired Colorado State Climatologist and Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network Founder Nolan Doesken said water does get lost when ski valleys pump millions of gallons of water into snowmaking, but he wouldn't characterize it as significant.
"There are some losses along the way: 20, 10 or 30 percent. I think under most circumstances they get most of the water back into your soil moisture or into the groundwater or into the stream," Doesken said.
Doesken said the water loss is dependent on location, including an area's climate and weather conditions.
He said he has always been fascinated with snowmaking. He said he started his climate research career in 1977, when there was an "extremely bad drought" and ski areas struggled to stay open. Shortly thereafter, said Doesken, the technology of snowmaking took off.
For the past three years, he said Colorado and New Mexico have continued to undergo drought conditions, with a little relief from the monsoon season this past summer. He said the Southwest has a high variability of precipitation and warmer temperatures. This has been an ongoing overall trend for the past 20 years in both states.
"Projections of the future computer model simulations ... have always pointed towards the Southwest to be more vulnerable to climate change than other parts of U.S.," Doesken said.
Doesken said to also expect less of the fresh snow powder that skiers crave to ski on in the years to come.
But he added that natural snowfall shouldn't be going away any time soon in Western states, particularly in places with higher altitudes.
"I've heard this argument that there isn't going to be any snow in the West by 2050 or something. It's just not true," Doesken said.
Still, snowmakers like West and Hamill are continuing to make more and more snow each year using snow machines.
"We just wait for Mother Nature to come and give us some powder. We're not in the powder making business. We're in the construction style business," Hamill said.