Is Natural Snow Better than Man Made for Skiing (and Snowboarding)?

Yes, and it is all about the structure of the snowflake.

Dry snow can be so light that it barely bends the branches like on this tree.

So far, this season’s meager amount of snowfall leaves many New England skiers and snowboarders high and dry. Most New England resorts reported below-average skier visits. However, larger ones with immense snow-making capabilities like Vermont’s Killington Resort said that business was actually ahead of last ski season. While manmade snow is better than none at all, both skiers and snowboarders hands down prefer the fluffy powder that nature made.

Basically, the idea of snow machines trying to create snow is like a 4-year-old trying to paint the Mona Lisa; it works, but only as a clumsy imitation of the real thing. The reason is that natural snow develops from frozen water vapor whereas manmade snow forms from frozen water droplets. When vapor in the clouds cools, it condenses into ice which is called a snow crystal or snowflake. As the crystal grows, it branches out in several directions, becoming more lacelike and complex. The more intricate the snowflakes’ patterns are as they fall, the softer the end product becomes. The branches do not allow the flakes to condense into hard lumps.

Meanwhile, snow machines use water drops, not vapor, and spit out the same ice one finds stuck to the inside edges of freezers. When water droplets freeze, they do not burst into elaborate lattices; they harden and drop into compact clumps. Tom Fillmore, a field technician of Snow Machines, Inc. in Michigan, explains that when the machines make snow, the creation is actually, “like an egg with a hard icy shell protecting the soft liquid inside.”

So the major difference between manmade snow and natural snow is the shape of the individual snowflake, which determines whether the slopes will have either dry or wet snow. Dry snow is the light powder skiers can easily glide over and derives from the complex crystals. Because the manmade snowflakes are simple frozen water gobs with a liquid-core, the resulting snow is wet and becomes slushy (or icy if temperatures are in the teens) as people ski over it.

Fillmore, who’s worked in the snow-making industry 30 years, says that while snow making has improved somewhat, they still cannot create those complex structures that make for the perfect day on the ski trails. Fillmore gets to hit the slopes once in a while during his off hours, and when asked which snow type he preferred, Fillmore quickly answered, “The real stuff, no question. Nobody can make snow as good as God makes it.”


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