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Snow Business


Last month global leaders of politics, industry, and economics gathered for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  The event brought 3,000 stakeholders from around the world to the exclusive Swiss ski resort of Davos to discuss sustainability and the climate crisis.  As always, the town was covered in a beautiful blanket of snow.  But this may not be the case for much longer.

The Big Thaw

The climate crisis discussed in Davos is wreaking slow havoc in mountain resorts around the world.  The Alpine setting for the conference about climate change couldn’t have been more apposite.  Rising global temperatures has shortened the average ski season by 38 days since 1960.  Across the Alps, the snow line is creeping higher and higher.  Lower lying resorts sit abandoned.  By one estimate (here), there are over 150 such abandoned ski resorts in Italy alone.  What’s more alarming is that, while the average global temperatures have risen by about 1.4 degrees Celsius since the end of the 19th century, the average temperature is the Alps has risen by at least 2 degrees Celsius, scientists are still trying to work out why this is.  This issue isn’t unique to Europe either.  In Japan, where the powder is usually measured in feet rather than inches, it’s raining not snowing.  The world famous Japanese ski station of Niseko is currently experiencing its worst skiing season for 30 years (here).

So a few relatively wealthy individuals may no longer be able to throw themselves down a mountain for fun.  So what.  In a hierarchy of those affected by climate change, skiers must be fairly low down the list.  Indeed, sympathy may not be forthcoming from residents of New South Wales as their bushland continues to burn, or inhabitants of the Maldives as they nervously watch the sea creeping up their golden beaches.

However, we should take note.  In these mountain communities, technology is being developed to fight back.  Technology that could one day help us all.

Making it Snow

Wayne Pierce, a ski designer from Connecticut, was the first to market snowmaking for recreational purposes.  His 1950 patent (US 2,676,471) sets out the basic principles which are simple enough.  A mixture of air and water is forced at high pressure through a nozzle to form a “fine vapour or mist” which, if the ambient temperature is below about -6 degrees Celsius, will fall as snow.  In 1959, Alden Hanson of Michigan patented (US 2,968,164) a system which used a fan and low pressure water to form a cloud of water vapour.  Since this set-up did not require high pressure water, it could be moved all over the mountain with ease and used considerably less energy than the Pierce system.  Today we call these “snow cannons.”  Despite purporting to produce snow, these early machines really deposited small lumps of ice on the mountain side.  However, a flurry (sorry) of subsequent innovations have led to these machines becoming ubiquitous fixtures of ski resorts around the world.

It was known, even to Alden Hanson, that adding fine dust to the water mix produced snow with a softer texture.  The dust provides a solid surface for the heterogeneous nucleation of the supercooled water vapour, leading to the formation of nice snow crystals rather than lumps of ice.  However, in 1975, Steve Lindow of California discovered that the bacterium pseudomonas syringae produces proteins that causes ice crystals to nucleate at temperatures as high as -2 degrees Celsius.  These bacteria are now cultivated, freeze dried, and sold as Snomax®.  Today, the company claims that water mixed with Snomax® is able to form snow at just -0.6 degrees Celsius.

About a decade ago, an Israeli company went one step further.  IDE Technologies specialises in water treatment and desalination.  The company stumbled upon snowmaking quite by accident when making modifications to its systems usually used to cool African gold mines.  The process, described in GB 2485864 A, involves reducing the the pressure and temperature of a tank of water until the triple point of water in reached.  At this point, water will exist as vapour, liquid, and ice (or snow).  The liquid water and snow are pumped into a second tank where the solid snow is extracted from the water.  The commercial machines which use this process is able to generate 1900 cubic metres of snow per day, regardless of the ambient temperature.  These facilities have already been installed in the resorts of Pitztal in Austria, and Zermatt in Switzerland.  It’s not quite selling ice to eskimos, but this Israeli company is selling snow to the Swiss.

Glacial Melt – Trickle Down

All of this technology is clearly impressive and is already paying for itself many times over by keeping the mountains white and the pistes open, but from the outside it may seem rather incongruous.  Snowmaking uses vast amounts of water and energy.  Often the water is treated in some way before it is pumped into the mountain (for example by adding a nucleation promoter) which can pollute the waterways when the snow melts.  Moreover, much of the energy used still comes from fossil fuels resulting in a bizarre masochistic snowball (sorry) effect; the machines are causing the problem they are there to solve.  At first glance then, it seems that the interests of a few wealthy ski resorts are at odds with the interests of the environment as a whole.  However, this would be something of a simplification.

Hans Oerlemans, a Dutch climatologist, believes that snowmaking could be utilised to mitigate other, far more serious effects of climate change.  In the summer 2017, Oerlemans and his team used conventional snowmaking equipment to cover a small portion of the Diavolezzafirn glacier in Switzerland in 2.5 metre blanket of snow.  Not only did this prevent glacial retreat, but the glacier actually grew over the summer (here).

We are all familiar with glacial retreat.  Perhaps nothing visually captures the gravity of the climate crisis more than those arresting before-and-after images of once mighty rivers of ice becoming tiny and distant.  But in addition to being a sensitive bellwether of the global temperatures, glacial retreat is also devastating in itself.  For the ski industry, glaciers provide an opportunity for year-round skiing, but the number suitable glaciers are dwindling.  The shrinking Mont Fort glacier above Verbier was last opened for summer skiing in 1999.  Moreover, glaciers are a vital source of water for communities across the world.  While populations in Europe and North America will probably find alternatives, the same is unlikely to be true for those residents of northern India and Tibet who’s lives depend on glacial meltwater from the Himalayas.

In response to this very problem, Indian engineer Sonam Wangchuk, known as the ‘Ice Man of Ladakh,’ has an devised an ingenious solution.  During the cold winter months, water is diverted from a high mountain stream and sprayed upwards, under the influence of gravity, to form 30 metre tall artificial glaciers.  The principles are identical to those Wayne Pierce pioneered in 1950.  Sonam plans to construct a further 20 of these “ice stupas” across the high dry deserts of northern India (here).

Is it inconceivable that the wealth of knowledge and expertise developed in the worlds ski resorts could be used to improve Sonam’s beautiful ice towers?

The White Stuff

Beyond slowing glacial retreat, and providing drinking water, snowmaking could help fight the effects of climate change in another way.  Snow and ice, by virtue of being white, is excellent at reflecting solar radiation away from the Earth.  This is known as the albedo effect and, as anyone who has visited the Greek island of Santorini knows, it has been keeping people’s homes cool for centuries.  Forests, farmland, and even bodies of water adsorb far more of the Sun’s energy than snow; all that heat ultimately warms the planet.  Covering our land in a blanket of artificial snow may go some way to keeping us cool.

With our current snowmaking technologies, it would be impossible to generate enough of the white stuff to have any real impact.  However, the pace of the innovation surrounding snowmaking is anything but glacial.

Following his successful trial on the Diavolezzafirn glacier, Hans Oerlemans plans to cover a portion of the far larger neighbouring Morteratsch glacier in a similar snow blanket.  This in itself presents some technical challenges.  The vast area he plans to cover, and the constant movement of the ice means conventional snow machines cannot be used.  Instead, Oerlemans will suspend a “snow rope” high above the ice which will act as a sprinkler to deposit snow onto the glacier beneath (here).  Patent pending, of course.

For this project, Oerlemans received a 2 million franc grant from the Swiss government, a fraction of the estimated 30 billion francs the tourism industry is with the Switzerland annually, much of which is reliant on snow (here).  Compared to many victims of climate change, the ski industry is clearly better resourced than most to fight for its survival.  It seems possible, if not likely, that the technology used in this fight could one day help us all keep our cool.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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