Beijing holds Winter Games after mega snow production


China didn’t move mountains to host the 2022 Winter Games. But it flooded a dry riverbed, diverted water from a major dam that supplies Beijing and moved hundreds of farmers and their families to new land, all to feed one of the world’s largest snow production operations in Olympic history.

This is what happens when the IOC (International Olympic Committee) decides to take the Winter Olympics to a place where one of the main ingredients for winter sports – snow – is almost permanently in short supply. Also, Beijing and the surrounding mountains didn’t have that much water either, to produce artificial snow.

Artificial snow has played an important role in winter sports for decades, even in naturally snowy places like Norway, Switzerland and the US state of Colorado.

In the Beijing version of the Winter Games, the competitions started last weekend take place for the first time almost completely on artificial snow, which required a snow making and water management operation of immense scale and allowed for a preview of the reality. of winter sports across the planet in the face of advancing global warming.

In the mountains where alpine competitions take place, and where recreational skiing is not practiced, there are now narrow white stripes, visible for miles around, cutting through the brown terrain.

Beijing officials insist the snow production will not strain the local water supply, which has already struggled to keep up with the city’s demand.

But China’s Herculean investments in snowmaking are part of broader efforts to turn the arid mountains near Beijing into a permanent ski and snowboard hub, a project that may face major challenges in the face of disrupted drought patterns and of precipitation caused by climate change.

Across the planet, the (ecologically incorrect) secret of skiing and snowboarding competitions is that as natural snow becomes less reliable, they almost always take place on artificial snow. And as the planet is expected to continue to warm, machine-produced snow will play an increasing role in ensuring high-quality spaces and a consistent surface for competition.

“It would not be possible to have winter sports today without artificial snow,” said Michael Mayr, Asia manager at TechnoAlpin, the Italian company that is in charge of producing snow for the Beijing Olympics and has played the same role in the six Olympic Games. previous winter.

What separates Beijing from many of these past competition venues is the tight supply of water. Over the past few decades, rapid development has reduced the amount of water available in the Beijing region’s groundwater.

July and August often bring heavy rains, but the city and nearby mountains receive very low rainfall in winter: less than four centimeters throughout the season, on average over the past few decades, according to data from a weather station near the site of the storms. Games.

In 2017, the last year for which international data are available, Beijing had potable water resources in the order of 136,000 liters of water per capita, the equivalent of the average for Niger, a West African country on the edge of the desert. Sahara.

Zhangjiakou, the city 160 kilometers northwest of the Chinese capital that hosts some of the ski and snowboard competitions, has 313,000 liters of water per inhabitant, equivalent to the average for Djibouti, an East African country.

The United States, in contrast, has 8.7 million liters of water per inhabitant. Countries that have less than 983,000 liters of potable water per inhabitant are considered as water scarcity areas.

Florian Hajzeri, who has been in China for four years to oversee TechnoAlpin’s snow production project, said he realized the magnitude of his task as soon as he saw the landscape of the areas where the Olympic competitions would be held.

“There are trees and vegetation, but it’s not like an alpine forest; it’s the vegetation of a drier climate,” he said. “It snows in the region, but not enough for competitions.”

Before TechnoAlpin could install pumps and build more than 65 kilometers of pipelines, at a cost of nearly US$60 million, Chinese authorities first had to bring enough water to the mountains.

How much water? The equivalent of one million cubic meters, according to TechnoAlpin, enough to fill 400 Olympic swimming pools. And that’s just to start the Games. More snow and more water will become necessary throughout the competitions.

To gather all this water, Chinese authorities built pumping stations to move water from reservoirs located miles away.

According to a state-run newspaper, Beijing diverted water from the Baihebao Reservoir, sending it to the Guishui River. The Guishui flows close to the Olympic competition area, but in winter it becomes a dry bed most years. Previously, the Baihebao Reservoir was mainly used to supply the Miyun Reservoir, one of the largest repositories of drinking water for households in Beijing.

Zhangjiakou authorities turned off irrigation on tens of thousands of hectares of land in order to preserve the water table, and relocated farmers living in what became the Olympic competition area, moving them to apartment buildings.

Huge water projects are nothing new in modern China. The country’s biggest effort to alleviate Beijing’s water problems began long before the Olympics: a colossal series of canals that transfer trillions of liters of water from the country’s wet south to the thirsty north. Hundreds of thousands of villagers were moved to make way for the canals. The water transported by this project accounted for one-sixth of Beijing’s consumption in 2020.

While the Chinese government has made progress on water issues in recent years, scientists and environmentalists say the capital cannot sit back and enjoy victory.

“They need to do more to promote water conservation, to increase water use efficiency, and to ensure social equity in water allocation,” said Ximing Cai, professor of water resources engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. . If the Olympics promote a surge in economic development in the hills near Beijing, he said, “the associated water use will need to be carefully planned.”

But climate change could both deepen northern China’s need for water and affect southern China’s ability to provide it. Scientists found that the severe heat waves and floods recorded recently in China would become increasingly likely due to climate change caused by human activity.

“Against the backdrop of global warming, the risks for China’s major infrastructure projects are growing,” Zheng Guogang, who was the top director of China’s meteorological services, told a Communist Party newspaper in 2015, citing the project. of water transfer from the south to the north of the country and others.

Chinese officials say they are limiting the impact of snow production, especially as the snow produced will be collected after use for reuse.

But scientists who study snow production have found that a fraction of the water is evaporated after it is fired by the water cannon, but before it crystallizes into snow. Some of the snowflakes are carried by the wind. Some drops of water do not completely freeze and evaporate when they fall to the ground.

Two researchers in Switzerland, Thomas Grünewald and Fabian Wolfsperger, conducted experiments at a ski resort near Davos and found that about 35% of the water used to make snow was lost in this way. The water absorbed by the soil is not completely lost, of course, and helps replenish the water table.

Still, Wolfsperger said, creating a ski resort near a water-scarce city like Beijing is “surely not good for the environment.” “But winter sports never were, in general terms,” ​​he noted.

Other research has found that artificial ski slopes can erode the ground and degrade vegetation, regardless of the type of snow used.

For skiers and snowboarders, competing entirely on artificial snow changes everything, from the way they prepare for the Olympics, the biggest competition of their lives, to the wax they use on their boards and skis to gain speed. It also changes the training they need to do to face the most serious risks caused by a smooth surface. In warmer weather, artificial snow surfaces tend to crack more easily than natural snow surfaces, athletes say.

“It’s not the first time we’ve competed on artificial snow and unfortunately it looks like it won’t be the last,” said Jessie Diggins, a 2018 cross-country ski gold medalist who has become a climate change activist in recent years. .

“It’s a harder surface, there’s more ice, and the transformation is different when the weather changes,” she said. “And because the tracks are faster, some of the downhill skiing starts with a higher starting speed. That makes the track, I don’t mean more dangerous, but more complicated in terms of how you’re going to handle the corners.”

Under certain conditions, however, such as the very cold temperatures predicted for competitions in China, alpine skiers sometimes prefer artificial snow, because technicians are able to produce wet flakes that when frozen form the smooth, rock-hard surface that athletes prefer.

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