When Shaun White skis the halfpipe at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, he’ll be doing tricks on phony flakes. This year’s Winter Games will mark the first time athletes will compete almost entirely on artificial snow, according to a report from London’s Loughbough University.
“The Beijing Games will make history as the first Winters on virtually 100% artificial snow,” the report said. Organizers of the Games are using dozens of snow generators and hundreds of snowblowers to create 1.2 million cubic meters of powder (that’s about 42.4 million cubic feet).
As the climate crisis continues, that’ll likely become the norm, the report said, “starting with lower-altitude slopes and raising pressure and costs on higher-[altitude] resorts.”
But generating fake snow has a high environmental cost, the report’s authors say. “Even if powered by renewables, a huge amount of energy is needed which is both costly and can be a significant drain on water resources.”
And winter athletes say the artificial turf is less safe.
“Artificial snow is icier, therefore faster and more dangerous,” Estonian biathlete Johanna Taliharm told the Associated Press in January. “It also hurts more if you fall outside of the course when there is no fluffy snowbank, but a rocky and muddy hard ground.”
Team USA cross-country coach Chris Grover said landing in it “can feel like falling on concrete.”
Artificial snow isn’t truly snow. It’s more of a tightly packed slush made from water droplets that are broken up by nozzles and frozen.
Most ski and snowboarding events at the Beijing Games will take place in Zhangjiakou, about 110 miles northwest of Beijing, including freestyle, cross-country, ski jumping and biathlon. Bobsled, luge and Alpine skiing events will be held in Yanqing, a mountainous area about 45 miles from downtown Beijing, where the Olympic athletes’ village is also located.
Skating and several additional snow events are being held at the Capital Indoor Stadium in central Beijing.
The 2026 Winter Games are slated to be held in Milan. The ideal conditions for making artificial snow are a “wet-bulb temperature” of about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, representing the combination of the actual temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. But temperatures in Milan rarely dip that low.
The opening ceremonies for the 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled to be held in Beijing on Feb. 4, with the games closing Feb 20.