UTAH (ABC4) – Although snow has been arriving in spades over the course of the last week, this year’s snowfall is still considered late to the game. Several local ski resorts were forced to push back opening dates due to lack of precipitation, and because of this, artificial snowmaking became the lifeline for this year’s lift lines.

2021/22 isn’t the first year the local resorts have had to rely on artificial snow to jump start the season, according to Chris Westover, director of operations at Snowbasin. Westover says he’s learned to expect these ebbs and flows in snowfall during his 16 years working at the resort.

“In the beginning of the season, we tend to not rely on natural snowfall,” he says.

But according to Ben Abbott, assistant professor of plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University, unpredictable natural snowfall hasn’t always been the norm along the Wasatch Front. He says that within the last 30 years, there’s been a 20% decline in the average amount of snow in Northern Utah. He acknowledges that it hasn’t been a steady decline but rather a trend, with above average snow years – like the 2018/19 season – still rearing their heads occasionally.

“When I was a kid, there was enough snow for the ski resorts to operate year-round that fell naturally,” he remembers. “We used to have much more reliable and plentiful snowfall than we do today.”

According to Abbott, even with this week’s storms, we’re still seeing a below average year in terms of snowfall. This, he says, is directly related to human-caused climate change.

“At least 35% and maybe as much as 100% of the mega-drought that we’re in is caused by human disruption of the climate,” he says.

The trend towards a declining snowpack caused the artificial snow business to grow, Abbott says. He recalls his teenage years working at Park City Mountain Resort as a lift operator and seeing the first snowmaking machines start to appear in Utah’s mountains. He describes snowmaking back then as a “niche activity” used sparingly to bolster snow during dry periods or to elongate the ski season.

Now, especially during the early season, it would be unusual not to see the snow machines running at Utah resorts. According to Westover, Snowbasin starts making snow in early November, and the resort typically runs the machines until the New Year.

Snowmakers start creating the powder at the top of Snowbasin’s central gondola, gradually working their way down to the base area. Then, they prioritize paving the main runs under the lifts with snow for assurance that lifts can run into the late spring.

“We open with a top to bottom [approach] and traditionally speaking, that ski run has been predominantly snowmaking,” Westover says. “Early season natural snowfall is just so unpredictable and sporadic that we put all our efforts into the snowmaking.”

Another benefit of snowmaking in the early season is more control over the quality of the powder, Westover says.

“When we make snow we’re able to manipulate the amount of water that goes into the process and so we can make a heavier snow than what would typically fall out of the sky,” he explains. “That allows us to create a base layer that’s much harder and will withstand the volume of any type of weather event.”

Snowmaking, simply described, is a process involving compressed air and water. The 18-foot-tall snow guns combine these two ingredients, and when they are released from the barrel, they hit the freezing air and turn into a snow crystal. According to Westover, these guns can use anywhere from 30 – 100 gallons of water per minute, depending on how cold it is on the mountain.

The amount of water usage is one of several environmental concerns that snowmaking raises, according to Abbott.

“Our ski resorts are located very high in the watershed, so they typically don’t have large rivers that are flowing through them,” he says. “Sometimes, they’re drawing from municipal water sources, so they’re competing with the cities that need water for their citizens.”

Creating snowfields where they weren’t before can affect the environment in other ways, too. Namely, changing natural snowmelt conditions can affect the entire ecological community of the area, according to Abbott.

“If you’ve added a lot of snow to an area that didn’t use to have it, you might change the snowmelt date from May to the end of July, which is, of course, going to affect the forest and the whole ecological community there,” he says. “That’s a real concern because we’re putting more and more pressure on those ecosystems, so we need to be very careful about protecting the pristine areas that we do have.”

Artificial snow can also change the chemistry of the snowmelt, which then leaches into the groundwater and runoff, which can contribute to atmospheric deposition.

Westover also mentions the carbon footprint associated with operating snow machines as an environmental concern.

But luckily, ski resorts are aware of these concerns and have water-right restrictions in place to help mediate the potential for detrimental effects. Westover adds that there have been technological improvements to make low-energy snow machines, which Snowbasin is deeply invested in.

“All the resorts have different water sources, as well as different restrictions on how much snow they’re allowed to make,” says Alison Palmintere, director of communications at Ski Utah. “It will also depend year to year.”

Westover says that Snowbasin has historically been able to make as much snow as necessary while remaining within its water rights. He also says that, despite the trend towards decreasing snowpack, Snowbasin has not been increasing its artificial snow production. At the most, he says, the resort snow production varies between 10 – 15%.

But even though snow production hasn’t been increasing much within the last few years, Abbott has concerns about the viability of this practice.

Not only is snowmaking expensive – Westover says the costs increase every year – with temperatures continuing to see an upward trend, but it might also become harder and harder to actually run the snow machines. In order to make snow, the air outside the snow gun must be below freezing, so the ejected water is sure to freeze. Westover says that the ideal temperature for this is about 28 degrees.

“You can’t create snow when the sun shines. If the temperature is too high, then, of course, you can’t create artificial snow,” Abbott says. “That’s been one of the threats with climate change. Right now, we have this band-aid of artificial snow creation that may work for a number of years, or maybe a decade or two, but we’re transitioning into a world where that’s not going to work.”

The reality of Abbott’s predictions may well be already coming to light. According to Westover, Snowbasin had to delay its opening 17 days past the initially projected date.

“It was just simply too warm to make snow, or we could only make snow at the higher elevations,” he says. “It was too warm in the base area, so it certainly had a direct effect on our operations.”

But still, Palmintere says this type of season isn’t super unusual for the area, and – at least for now – ski season will commence as usual.

“The resorts are definitely blowing as much snow as they’re allowed to and as they’re able to in order to open as much terrain as possible,” she says. “This isn’t unusual. 20 years ago, which was an Olympics year, we didn’t see a stitch of snow until December and ended up having 100 inches fall in 100 hours, so it’s really variable, it just depends on the year.”