Let’s face it; climate change is real and is here with us. We, humans, have damaged the environment enough that weather patterns have changed over the last few decades and will continue to change, for the worst, in the coming decades, if nothing is done. The fact that weather patterns have changed, is the reason why some have tried to create artificial snow.
Artificial snow is the result of forced water and pressurized air through a snow gun, to make snow, to supplement natural snow. It has come in handy over the years, primarily to create or enhance snowscapes, especially for outdoor winter sports, like in the Winter Olympics of 1980, 2010 and 2014.
Artificial snow has also been used in various other scenarios which begs the question, is it bad for the environment? This article seeks to understand artificial or fake snow and its relation to the environment.
Is Fake Snow Bad For The Environment?
To some extent, artificial snow is bad for the environment. It is not directly bad for the environment, but the process of making fake snow has some adverse effects on the environment.
The basics of fake snow are that cool water will be dispersed and condense on particles in the air and crystalize to produce snowflakes that come in different sizes and shapes. It, therefore, means water will be converted into the snow, making it completely safe for the environment.
In fact, depending on the quality of the snow machine, artificial snow can be as good as natural snow. It is therefore safe and non-toxic and can be used for decorations, window dressing and stage performances, usually in combination with fans, to give a controlled snowfall.
Unfortunately, the making of artificial snow uses energy, which is not only expensive but also unsustainable, and only aggravates the damage caused by global warming. The energy mainly comes from non-renewable sources and only seeks to put more pressure on the environment.
Also, to make the fake snow, a lot of water is used, with up to 20,000 cubic meters of water needed to make snow cannons that whitewash a medium-sized 1,600 meters long ski slope. The colossal waste of water and the electricity required to power the cannons, contribute to noise pollution.
They also lead to massive use of polluting additives that have heavy repercussions on flora and fauna. The is also a direct effect of the snow on the environment. The artificial snow has a high density and concentration of liquid water compared to natural snow, meaning it has a greater weight.
Such a factor results in the underlying soil freezing, preventing the passage of oxygen and causing the death of all the vegetation below. This alters the ecology and biodiversity of the mountain slopes and the environment in general.
What is Artificial Snow Made Up of?
It is important to remember that artificial or man-made snow is being made because there is a shortage of natural snow, a major consequence of global warming and climate change. The practice of making artificial snow has been going on since the 1950s and is the reason why resorts are making snow in warm weather.
To make artificial snow, a lot of water is needed, and the most common practice is to pump water out of reservoirs, streams, or lakes. The process also needs a machine that uses a high-pressure pump to spray a mist of water into the cold air.
In nature, snowflakes are formed when the temperature falls below 32°F (0°C). the atmospheric water condenses on particles in the air and crystalizes to produce snowflakes of different sizes and shapes.
The machines that produce artificial snow are designed to mimic the way that natural snow is made. In a snow machine, the collected water is first mixed with a nucleating material. It is then pressurized and forced through an atomizing nozzle.
Doing this breaks the water up into a mist, which is then injected with compressed air to break it up even further. As the mist exits the snow machine, it crystallizes on the nucleator and turns into tiny snow-like ice particles. Depending on the quality of the snow machine, artificial snow can be as good as natural snow.
In fact, some modern machines form relatively dry snow, to slow down the rate that it melts. The snow is then dispersed through the use of an air compressor, or a fan, which blows it on to desired slopes.
Another source argues that artificial snow is made of a polyacrylate polymer, such as sodium polyacrylate, which is shredded to produce flakes of a similar size and color to real snow. Sodium polyacrylate, also known as a hydrogel, is a superabsorbent polymer and can absorb up to 800 times its weight in water.
This characteristic helps the material to recreate the feeling of cold, wet snow and can be cooled or frozen to make the effect even more realistic. The molecular structure of the gel is made up of long polymer molecules shaped like chains, which are linked together into a network in a so-called cross-linking reaction.
This network structure contains a lot of empty space where water molecules can sit, and its flexibility allows the material to swell to accommodate even more water molecules.
Is Fake Snow Biodegradable?
Yes, fake snow is biodegradable. Newer technology now created fully biodegradable and eco-friendly fake snow made of food-grade ingredients that dissolve in the rain without leaving a residue. Some, package the snow and sell it physically and online, and they argue that their variety is biodegradable.
The Snow People, for instance, sell Eco Falling Snow, which is crafted from renewable resources and is an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastic-based fake snow. The product is plant-based and therefore if placed in certain unwanted conditions, it could begin decomposing.
Since fake snow is now used in so many areas of life, like in movies and sports, only biodegradable options are preferred. Thanks to modern technology, we have fully biodegradable and plant-based options that are available all over, replacing those that could leave cellulose and other products that left a harmful residue when they got wet.
Is Fake Snow Toxic To Cats?
Unfortunately, fake snow is toxic to cats if ingested, although the toxicity depends on the type of fake snow. According to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service in the UK, most fake snow is of low toxicity, although it could still upset your cat’s tummy if eaten.
They, therefore, advise against cats chewing things with fake snow on to be on the safe side. The Service also argues that fake snow from different countries might not have gone through the strict safety standards as those in the UK, making their fake snow a lot more toxic.
When cats ingest such fake snow, they end up vomiting, having diarrhea and could end up dead if they nibbled on a lot of it. some of the fake snow, for instance, could contain antifreeze or ethylene glycol which is very dangerous if ingested.
Cats can be attracted to it because it tastes very sweet. However, once swallowed it can cause severe kidney damage and can even be fatal.
How Does Artificial Snow Impact the Environment?
It uses a lot of water
Making artificial snow uses a lot of water, a resource that is becoming increasingly rare as days go by. Although written in Italian, the Legambiente 2019 Dossier argues that up to 20,000 cubic meters of water are needed to put the so-called ‘snow cannons’ into operation to whitewash a medium-sized ski slope that is 1,600 meters long.
That is a lot of water wasted and is often harvested from rivers and creeks, which could run them dry. Water is the primary ingredient required to make artificial snow and, sadly, we are currently in dire need of clean water.
It uses a lot of energy
The second issue with artificial snow is that it uses a lot of electricity. According to a study by the WWF, again reported in Italian, about 95 million cubic meters of water and 600-gigawatt hours of energy are used to feed the so-called ‘snow cannons’.
This, in suitable weather conditions, could transform a certain amount of water into the snow every year of 136 thousand euros per hectare of the track. That is a lot of electric energy and if sourced from non-renewable resources, further contributes to damage to the environment.
Running snow-making machines relies on diesel fuel or electricity whose by-product is carbon dioxide. The gas is responsible for global warming and climate change, which are the original reason why seasons are becoming shorter, giving us less natural snow.
This colossal waste of water and electricity needed to power the cannons pollutes the environment in more ways than one. There is also a lot of noise pollution generated by the plants and air pollution generated by the trucks that transport the ‘technical’ snow from one part of the valleys to the other.
To put this into perspective, a high-pressure compressor produces 115 decibels of noise, and the human ear can tolerate about 85 decibels before beginning to suffer damage. That is a lot of noise pollution that could be of serious repercussions to humans.
There is also a massive use of polluting additives that have heavy repercussions on animals and plants. These additives also affect the nearby bodies of water and will therefore end up in our water tanks.
Artificial snow, in comparison to natural snow, has a higher density and concentration of liquid water. It also has a greater weight and a lower thermal insulation capacity between the soil and the atmosphere.
These are the factors that cause the underlying soil to freeze. This, therefore, prevents the passage of oxygen and causes the death of all the vegetation below. Ultimately, this alters the ecology and biodiversity of mountain slopes and anywhere where the fake snow is spread.
Economic and social costs
To make artificial snow, a lot has to be poured into the project, in terms of money. These resorts that rely on artificial snow have to use a lot of money to harvest the necessary water, as well as electricity bills.
They also have to hire or at least purchase air compressors and fans needed to blow the snow, all for something that will be over in a few months. However, some have started investing in wind power, generating enough power for the project as well as run the resort.
This can be seen as being part of the solution and can be encouraged. However, remember the project relies on a lot of water, so weigh between the two before concluding which is better.
Nonetheless, all this money and effort should be directed towards curbing climate change and global warming, which will give the resorts the natural snow they desperately need.