Beijing’s Winter Olympics Raise Water-related Questions

4 Feb 2022  |  Reese Tisdale

Beijing 2022 will be the first Winter Olympics to rely exclusively on “fake”, or machine-made snow, thus raising a number of questions, including how sustainable are snow sports such as downhill and cross-country skiing? So, in the spirit of the games, it’s worth taking a closer look at the connection between water, the Olympics, the ski industry, and snowmaking.   

As a start, the National Alpine Ski Centre in Yanqing (55 miles outside of Beijing), where the downhill skiing events are scheduled to take place, received just two centimeters of snow from January to March of 2021. It is hard to believe that the lack of snow was an oversight in the selection of Beijing as a winter Olympic site. In fact, it wasn’t.

Beijing 2022, the Winter Olympics, as a whole, and the global ski industry, are facing a new normal that requires more advanced solutions to confront the convergence of climate, water, and energy.

Climate change reshapes sports and Olympic games. Of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Games, a reported 14 cities would be considered “unreliable” and six would be “marginal” in terms of snow safety by 2080. However, if countries can hit targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement, most places can continue to safely host the Games without interruption. Approximately 80% and 90% of the snow in Sochi, Russia (2014) and Pyeongchang, South Korea (2018), respectively, was manufactured. And this is not specific to Asia. Colorado’s ski resorts are also being impacted by climate change.

Water is at the foundation of snow sports. Approximately 180,000 gallons (681 m3) of water are needed to cover an acre of land with a foot of machine-made snow. The Beijing Olympic ski site, which is already in a water-stressed region, could require as much as 49 million gallons of water—the equivalent of 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools—to manufacture snow. Although, this number is up for debate. Researchers have indicated that the requirements will far exceed the original, Chinese estimate by requiring closer to 1.8 billion gallons of water. A spokesperson for the Beijing Winter Olympics has stated that almost 10% of water consumed in Chongli, the local district of Zhangjiakou, will be used to make snow for the games. As a base of supply, is a tank field with capacity exceeding 140 million gallons (530,000 m3) of water from surface runoff, rainfall and melted snow. Water from a nearby reservoir will also be piped in. 

Sustainability of the ski industry being questioned. With manufactured snow costing as much as US$2,000 per hour, the largest share of this process is associated with labor and electricity. So, not only is the ski industry, let alone the Winter Olympics, at risk due to changing climate patterns (e.g., drought), it is also perceived by some as a contributor to climate change. Snowmaking relies heavily on fossil fueled power generation to power the water system’s physical plant: a network of air compression plants, pumps, pipes, hydrants, water coolers, water wells, water reservoirs, and groomers (i.e., snow cats) to distribute the snow across the slopes. 

Industry shifts point to potential efficiency gains. Since 2012, a wave of acquisitions has rolled-up most of the largest 50 ski resorts under two primary umbrellas, Vail Resorts, Aspen Skiing Co., and several independent collectives. This investor-led trend is underpinned by these groups seeking financial economies in shared operations and diversification to balance climate risks across geographies. With bottom-line driven owners and investors at the helm, there is speculation that more efficient water management could come out of lessons learned across all portfolio properties. The United States, Japan, France, and Italy are represented by more than 200 ski resorts each, drawing approximately 400 million skier visits annually.

Like many businesses, a changing climate poses the biggest risks to operations going forward. The ski industry is no different. While I look forward to a few weeks of great Olympic TV watching, it’s worth thinking about how the snow sports industry will address its climate-related risks, including water supply, and manage its associated energy footprint to move billions of gallons of water.