Tahoe Snowmen: The Science Behind Snowmaking
Even though gambling is legal in Lake Tahoe, ski resort operators don’t like taking any changes when it comes to making sure chairlifts are turning by mid-November and early season conditions are prime for powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders. This is where state-of-the-art snowmaking systems come into play, allowing ski resorts to hedge their bets and make snowflakes fall from the sky, even when there is not a cloud in sight.
Lake Tahoe is home to the largest snowmaking systems on the entire West Coast churning out over 100 inches of manmade snow each season to supplement Mother Nature’s bounty. With optimum conditions, this system can produce three and a half feet of snow over one acre in an hour, enough snow to blanket a football field with eight and a half feet in three hours.
“With the west coast’s largest snowmaking systems up and running, Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood Mountain Resorts are getting ready for another great winter,” said James Grant, Vice President of Mountain Operations at Heavenly. “The recent storms have helped get things started, and with the addition of snowmaking, we are building an excellent snow base already.”Snowmaking has been around since the 1950’s. The process basically relies on three simple things to supplement Mother Nature’s bounty: water, cold temperatures and a lofting wind (provided by either compressed air or fan guns). Modern snow-making systems use dedicated piping and automated controls to effectively and efficiently make snow any time the thermometer nears 32 degrees.
Spend any time with a seasoned snowmaker and you are certain to hear the term “wet bulb temperature” before long. This measurement takes into account the air temperature in addition to the humidity in the air. The lower the temperature and the lower the humidity, the better the conditions for snowmaking. In fact, snowmaking crews can make snow when temperatures are above freezing as long as the air humidity is extremely low. Resorts will often add nucleating agents to the water which helps the droplets freeze faster when temperatures hover around freezing.
Once the snow is on the ground, it’s time for expansive grooming fleets to go to work connecting the snow piles into a skiable run. The cat operators work in tandem with the snowmaking crews, toiling tirelessly throughout the night to maximize snowmaking efforts while temps are below zero.
“We spend the night fighting wind and checking snow quality,” said Mark Meyer, Snowmaking Manager at Squaw Valley. “On the bright side, snowmakers get to enjoy the best sunrises and a sense of accomplishment after a big night of piling up snow!”
Last season, Lake Tahoe ski resorts were able to open a week earlier than scheduled thanks to optimal snowmaking conditions and an unexpected visit by Godzilla El Nino. Riding the momentum of last year’s extended season that saw chairlifts turning from early November to the end of May, Ski Lake Tahoe resorts are targeting a mid-November opening. Be sure to high five the real snowmen of Tahoe for all their efforts in getting the slopes in prime condition; even after a hard night’s work, they are still usually the first ones in line on a powder day.