November 6, 2015
By Hilary Meyerson
Photo at right: Snow machines use an average of 2,000 gallons of water a minute.
Coming off a disastrous snowfall total for the 2014–2015 ski season, many eyes are on the Northwest weather this year.
What are the long range snow predictions? The Old Farmer’s Almanac, established in 1792, is saying cooler and rainier than usual, with above average snowpack. The New Farmer’s Almanac (the new kid on the block since 1818), takes the opposite view, saying it will be mild, similar to last year.
Local weather guru Cliff Mass is saying it’s shaping up to be a classic El Nino winter—drier and warmer than normal. He’s guessing less snow than usual, but more than last year’s poor showing.
No matter what the weather, Jon Wax has some job security. He’s the resident snow making expert from Mission Ridge Ski and Snowboard resort. He was even tapped to fly to Sochi to make snow for the 2014 Winter Olympics—the warmest location ever chosen to host the winter games.
After making snow in a humid subtropical climate, this winter should be a snap for him.
“It will be business as usual for us,” says Wax. “We’ll start building runs as soon as we get cold temps. It’s always a liquid plan. We plan for worse and hope for best.”
Mission Ridge is the undisputed leader in snowmaking in the Northwest. They have the most extensive operations—their system was installed in 1978. Many places like Mt. Baker, Stevens Pass and Timberline don’t have any snowmaking infrastructure and haven’t needed them before.
“It all comes down to water rights. Some resorts just don’t have them,” says Wax.
Indeed, there are several complicated issues when it comes to setting up snowmaking operations, and many reasons that a majority of resorts in the Northwest have minimal operations, if any.
The first issue is that due to our typical winter snowfalls, snowmaking has not been a priority in past years.
However, winters like the last two have changed that thinking. Which brings up the second reason you don’t see widespread snowmaking operations: the regulatory process is burdensome.
“You can’t install snowmaking in six months,” says John Gifford, President of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. “It can take from a year to five years and it can be an exhaustive process.
“You have to have water rights, permitting through the Department of Fish and Wildlife to deal with, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. There are many things related to water you need to research, and it’s a significant investment.”
So for resorts that have taken economic hits for the last two years, there is no quick solution for another poor year of snowfall. The 2013–2014 season actually was closer to average, but the majority of the snowfall arrived closer to the end of the season. The critical time for resorts to be fully operational is the Christmas holiday.
What exactly does it take to make snow? It’s a fine science. Snowmaking requires the proper “wetbulb” temperature: a mix of the humidity level and the ambient air temperatures.
“We can start up operations if the temperature is around 26–27 degrees,” says Wax, “but we need a certain humidity level. The lower the humidity, the lower of temps, and the better it is for snowmaking. We can make snow at 32 degrees, but not enough to justify the cost.”
The recipe for snow is water, air, and another particle, called a nucleating agent. When conditions are right, snowmakers need a water source, an air compressor and a common nucleating agent such as dust.
The water is forced at high pressure through a canon, the compressed air cools the water and the nucleating agent is introduced. You’ll see snow guns pointed upward, as the particles require “hang time” in the air to freeze before drifting to the ground as snow.
When Mission Ridge is pumping out snow they are averaging 2,000 gallons of water a minute. However, compare this to Sochi’s challenging climate where they were pumping out 12,000 gallons a minute and this was when conditions were just right.
There were still long stretches of time where they couldn’t do anything but wait for a better wetbulb number. For those Olympic Games, they used 230 million gallons of water—enough to make 1.7 million cubic yards of snow, or cover 1,000 football fields a foot deep.
Wax is feeling optimistic about this year, despite the El Nino prediction.
“We’ve been watching computer models, it looks like a strong El Nino winter, but better than last year.”
Last winter, snowfall was down 70 percent from average. Wax is predicting a winter of less than typical amounts, but only down by 30 percent. Either way, Wax will be ready for his 18th year of making snow for Mission Ridge.
No doubt, Mission Ridge will be in good shape this winter with Jon Wax at the helm.
Hilary Meyerson is a freelance writer and founder of Little Candle Media, www.littlecandlemedia.com. When not writing or tweeting, she can be found playing in the great outdoors.