As much as locals and ski enthusiasts love to brag about “fresh powder,” these rare treats are just that, even more so for the Low Country Skiers who will happily make do so long as the ski area is open and generally skiable. Across the country, even hitting the minimum viable snow level can be a challenge with the seemingly unstoppably march of global warming and climate change—even when it does bring the occasionally snow-heavy winter. All that being said, it’s never a bad time to familiarize yourself with the basics of history and logistics of artificial snow.
Snow Cannons: A Look Inside
After the snowless winter of 1949, Wayne Pierce, owner of the Tey Manufacturing Company of Milford, Connecticut, sought out to challenge Mother Nature’s control of the weather. His business was selling a new ski design at the time – the ALU-60, which suffered a major slump in sales due to the lack of snow. It was only a year later in 1950 that he decided to collaborate with partners Art Hunt and Dave Richey in creating the first snow machine.
Fairly basic compared to the massive snow cannons you see on mountains today, Pierce’s first creation involved a spray paint compressor, nozzle, and some garden hose. The trio was granted a patent for the basic process, but sold the company and patent rights in 1956 to Emhart Corporation.
Over the past 50 years, a number of businesses have caught on to the snowmaking frenzy, giving rise to an entire market of high-tech snow guns. Most importantly, resort owners have gained a considerable amount of control over snow consistency, extending the ski season by at least a month and improving slope conditions.
On the most basic level, the process of making snow involves turning water into small ice crystals. The machines work to manipulate condensation conditions, allowing water particles to form snow. It seems pretty simple, but there’s more to it.
The two most important variables involved in the snowmaking process are:
- Temperature (0oC or lower)
There may be some occasions, however, where snow appears to be produced at temperatures above freezing point, such as 1oC. Though this is likely to happen, it is not because science is wrong. It’s because your thermometer is wrong… sort of…
Snowmakers work from what is called a “Wet Bulb” temperature. The wet bulb measurement takes humidity levels and evaporative cooling into account when reading temperatures. This reading is usually cooler than a dry bulb reading, which is the kind our weather apps tell us. This is why it might seem that snow can be made above freezing point, but actually, is due to a different method of temperature reading.
So, how do the machines actually work, you ask? Good question.
First off, there are two types of snow cannons. Air cannons make snow by propelling water through the gun by way of highly compressed air. The amount of water and the amount of compressed air are both adjustable. For this reason, air cannons work well in warmer temperatures.
The second type is an airless fan gun, which uses a large fan to propel the water into snow. They still require a tiny amount of compressed air to keep the water moving, but the fan acts as the major propelling force. The amount of water being used can also be adjusted through a series of rings with water nozzles on the front. These rings can be opened or closed to respond to fluctuating temperatures.
Though slightly different, both machines spray water into the air as a fine mist, which then freezes into snow and falls back to the ground. Generally, it takes about 285,000 liters of water to create a 6-inch blanket of snow covering a 61×61 meter area. That’s enough water to fill a small swimming pool!
Next time you hit the slopes covered in a fresh blanket of man-made snow, be sure to thank Wayne Pierce for thinking of you. After all, what’s skiing without snow?