Man-made ‘snow guns’ have caused consternation among environmentalists ahead of the Beijing Olympics

The use of man-made snow at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing has led to critics warning that the practice is “irresponsible” amid ongoing climate concerns.

The use of artificial snow, which has been commonplace since the 1980 Winter Olympics in New York, has come under increasing fire ahead of the start of the Beijing Games in February.

With just five weeks remaining until the opening ceremony in the Chinese capital, event organizers are racing against the clock to coat the necessary courses and pistes required for Alpine events in freshly-fallen snow – despite it taking place in one of the driest regions in all of China.

To assess the scale of the task, one must only look towards 2021 snowfall for the region between January and March: a miserable 2cm.

And after estimates concluding that the Beijing Olympics will require some 49 million gallons of water to create the requirement amount of artificial snow, questions around the environmental sustainability of the event are growing from a whisper to a roar. 

But how exactly is the fake snow created? According to phys.org, local reservoirs will feed into an army of so-called ‘snow guns’ which will mix the water with compressed air to create the snow, which will be spread over the various course elements by an array of workers – who must ensure that the snow meets various requirements in its consistency.

While the creation of the snow itself is a relatively simple endeavor, what is less so is the potential cost it may come at. A study concluded last year that groundwater has been badly depleted in northern China for numerous reasons related to urbanization and irrigation. This led to water shortages for local residents – something that critics say is certain to happen again when a reported further 49 million gallons is stripped from reserves.

Olympic organizers, though, sing a different tune. They say that the snow-making machines are powered exclusively by renewable injury and that the water used by the snow guns will naturally return to its source when it melts in the spring – although others suggest that the scale of the task is entirely at odds with China’s pledge to hold a “green” Games.

It is “irresponsible”, says Carmen de Jong, of the University of Strasbourg, who added: “We could just as well hold the Olympics on the Moon or on Mars.”

Richard Butler, an emeritus professor in tourism, also added his voice to the mix. “The 2022 Olympics shows clearly how misused and now useless the term sustainable really is,” he said.

“It is used for whatever anyone wants and has become meaningless. Clearly money, power, influence and politics came together to award the games to an area without sufficient snow.”

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Similar concerns have led to the International Olympic Committee clarifying why an event like the Winter Olympics would be awarded to a region without an ability to produce sufficient snowfall.

“Locations for Winter Games depend on a number of considerations, not just snowfall,” they said.

“A series of water-conserving and recycling designs have been put into place to optimize water usage for snowmaking, human consumption, and other purposes. Yanqing is rich in water resources in comparison with neighbouring areas.

“Beijing 2022’s mission is being green, open, inclusive and clean. Beijing 2022 will use renewable energy for all competition venues.”

But per the complaints from experts like Butler and De Jong, those words are about as temporary and substantive as the snow in Beijing this time of year.

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