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How Beijing Created Snow for Winter Olympics
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How Beijing Created Snow for Winter Olympics

Matthew Futterman


Many competitions in winter sports are held on artificial snow. This is an extremely unfriendly practice for the environment. China’s water-scarce capital had to go to enormous lengths to make enough of it.

BEIJING — China did not move mountains to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It flooded a dry riverbed and diverted water from a critical reservoir that supplies Beijing. This allowed hundreds of farmers to resettle their families and feed one of the largest snow-making operations in the Games’ history.

This is what happens when International Olympic Committee decides bring the Winter Games in a place that is lacking in snow. What’s more, Beijing and its nearby mountains did not have that much water to make the artificial kind, either.

Since decades, machine-made snow has been a key component of winter sports, even in snowier areas like Colorado, Norway, Switzerland, and Switzerland. In Beijing’s version of the Winter Games, the competitions that begin this weekend will for the first time take place almost entirely on artificial snow, necessitating an Olympic snow-making and water-management operation of enormous scale, and foreshadowing the reality of snow sports everywhere as the planet warms.

The Alpine competitions take places on mountains without any recreational skiing. However, there are now narrow strips visible from miles around that cut through the brown mountains.

Beijing officials insist that snow production for the Games will not strain local water supplies, which have struggled to keep pace with the city’s demands. But China’s herculean investments in snow making are part of larger efforts to turn the arid mountains near Beijing into a permanent ski and snowboard hub, a project that could face challenges as climate change upends patterns of rainfall and drought.

The environmentally unfriendly secret to snowboarding and skiing competitions around the world is that natural snow becomes less reliable. They almost always take place on artificial snow. Machine-made snow will play a larger role in providing a consistent and high-quality field of play as the planet heats.

“You could not have winter sports now without man-made snow,” said Michael Mayr, the Asia manager of TechnoAlpin, the Italian company in charge of snow-making for the Beijing Games and at six previous Winter Olympics.

Beijing is different from other venues because of its limited water supplies, whether it’s for snowmaking or any other purpose. Over the past few decades, rapid development has sapped Beijing’s groundwater. According to data from a weather station located near the Olympic venues, July and August are often characterized by heavy rains. However, the city and surrounding mountains receive only a few drops of precipitation in winter.

2017 was the last year of which International figures are available, Beijing had only about as much freshwater resources per resident — 36,000 gallons — as the western African nation of Niger, at the edge of the Sahara. Zhangjiakou, a city located 100 miles northwest of Beijing, will host some ski and snowboarding events. It has 83,000 gallons per person, which is comparable to Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.

The United States, however, had 2.3 Million Gallons per Person. Water-scarce countries have less than 260,000 gallons per person of freshwater resources.

Florian Hajzeri has been in China for four year overseeing the snow-making projects for TechnoAlpin. He said he realized how big the task was as soon as he saw China’s Olympic competition areas.

“There are trees and vegetation, but it is not like an Alpine forest: It is vegetation for a drier climate,” he said. “It snows, but it is not enough for the competitions.”

TechnoAlpin had to first figure out how to supply enough water to the mountains before it could install pumps and construct more than 40 miles. It cost nearly $60 million.

How much water? TechnoAlpin says that it is approximately one million cubic metres, which is enough to fill 400 Olympic swimming pools. This is just to get the Games started. As the competitions unfold, more snow and water will likely be required.

Chinese authorities built pumping stations that carry water from distant reservoirs to gather it all.

According to a State-run newspaper, Beijing has diverted water from the city’s Baihebao Reservoir to the Guishui River, which flows near the Olympic zone but had long been Most of the winter’s snow has dried up.. Previously, Baihebao had primarily suppliedThe Miyun Reservoir is one of the largest water reserves for Beijing households.

Officials in Zhangjiakou — which is pronounced sort of like “jong jah coe” — have turned off irrigation across Tens of thousands of acresto conserve groundwater and resettled farmers who lived in the Olympic competition area in high rise apartments.

China is no stranger in the world to massive water projects. Its biggest effort to ease Beijing’s water troubles began well before the Olympics: a colossal series of waterways that is transferring trillions of gallons of water a year from the nation’s humid south to its thirsty north. Many thousands of villagersThey were moved to make way for the canals. Water from the project accounted for a sixth of Beijing’s water supply in 2020.

Although the Chinese government has made some progress in recent years on water issues, scientists and environmentalists believe that the capital cannot afford not to continue making progress.

“They still have to do more on water conservation, increasing water-use efficiency and ensuring social equity in water allocation,” said Ximing Cai, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. If the Olympics spur a burst of economic development in the hills near Beijing, he said, “the water use associated with that should be planned with caution.”

But climate change could both deepen northern China’s need for water and affect southern China’s ability to provide it. Scientists discovered that severe heat waves and floods in China recently were more likely to have been caused by climate change.

“Under the backdrop of global warming, the risks to major infrastructure projects in China are increasing,” Zheng Guoguang, then the country’s top weather official, Told a Communist Party journal, 2015Citing the South-North transfer program as an example.

Chinese officialsThey claim they are limiting the effects of snow-making, especially because the snow that is made after it melts will be collected so it can be reused.

Scientists who study snow-making have discovered that some of the water evaporates when it is blasted from a cannon, but not before it crystallizes into a flake. Some of the flakes are blown off by wind. Some droplets may not freeze completely and end up dripping into the ground.

Two researchers in Switzerland, Thomas Grünewald and Fabian Wolfsperger, conducted experiments at a ski resort near Davos and found that as much as 35 percent of the water used for snow making was lost in these ways. Water that seeps into groundwater is not lost completely. It helps replenish groundwater.

Still, Wolfsperger said, “It’s definitely not environmentally friendly” to build a ski hub near a water-scarce place like Beijing. “But winter sports have never been that in general.”

Other research has shown that artificial ski tracks can cause soil erosion and degrade vegetation, regardless what type of snow they use.

Skiers and snowboarders will find that competing entirely on machine-made snow is a major change in how they prepare for the Olympics. This includes everything from the wax they use for speed to the training they do to be more prepared for the increased risk of a slippery surface. Athletes said that man-made snow surfaces tends to melt faster in warmer weather than natural snow.

“This is not the first time we have been racing on artificial snow, and unfortunately it does not seem like it’s going to be the last,” said Jessie Diggins, a gold medalist in cross-country in 2018 who has become a climate change activist in recent years.

“It’s harder and icier and transforms differently with different weather,” she said. “And because it is faster, some of the downhills ski much faster when you are rolling in. It can make the course — I don’t want to say dangerous — but more tricky in terms of figuring out how you are going to navigate corners.”

However, artificial snow is sometimes preferred by Alpine skiers in certain circumstances, such as the extremely cold temperatures expected to be experienced in China. Technicians can create wet flakes that freeze and form the smooth, rock-hard surface they desire.

“It is more dense,” said Travis Ganong, an American who specializes in speed events. “It doesn’t really form flakes, and when it is groomed it gets more packed. It just sits very well and becomes uniform. It’s actually how we like it.”

Keith BradsherContributed reporting


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