The Winter Games are history. Meteorological winter is also history. Welcome to March…home of volatile weather in upstate New York. While we have had a very “unsnowy” winter, March can and has brought some major storms. You can take comfort in knowing that despite the fact that the two greatest snowstorms in Albany’s history took place in March, spring will be here and the warm weather will soon follow. The vernal equinox occurs at 1:26pm on Monday the 20th. For the first time in over four months, the average highs climb into the 50s, and record highs hit the 80s. But let me get back to the snow…
As of this writing, February 2006 was set to go down on the top five list of least snowiest Februarys. The 2005-6 winter season is threatening to stay in the top 10 list of least snowiest winters. So much for snow lovers. And so much for skiing, too, right? Not really. The science of snowmaking is a fascinating one. It is one of those cases where man can dodge Mother Nature and use technology to keep skiers and snowboarders happy and their recreational habitats operating.
Snowmaking, either natural or man-made, is all about two things: air and water. There is a difference between snow coming from the clouds and snow coming from the guns. Man-made snow is “engineered” to be much more compact and durable.
It takes roughly 75,000 gallons of water to cover a 200×200 foot area, a little less than one acre, with six inches of snow. That means (if I’ve done my math right) that Gore Mountain, which has about 344 acres of skiable terrain, would need roughly 27 million gallons of water to give all of their trails a six-inch base. Of course to do this, a tremendous of power is needed to keep the guns going, not to mention a ski area’s largest expense – labor. So how does all of this work?
As I mentioned, it’s all about air and water. The water part is relatively easy. Water is pumped up from a lowland reservoir to be transformed into snow. The air is the tough part. Compressed air is contained in a hose and used to “blast” the water into vapor and small droplets, as well as to send it up and out so that it can fall as snow. A component of the surrounding air is key in this process, and that is the amount of water already present. (It is commonly referred to as humidity.) If the air is not relatively humid, it is much easier to make snow, because it is easier for the water to evaporate and thus cool. Same principle that our bodies use to cool us in the summer—if it is very muggy on an August day, you will be uncomfortable because the sweat that has accumulated on the surface of your skin has a much harder time evaporating into the humid air.
Another physical principle that comes into play is the compression of the water vapor and droplets in the hose. As the water is shot out, it is under less pressure and thus loses temperature as it expands.
Snowmakers will tell you that this is a blend of science and art. A mix of water and air in concocted ratios will determine the durability of the snow. Wetter snow covers trails better and is more durable because it has more water (thus less air) than dry snow. Wet snow makes a good base, and skiers and operators alike hope for a dry natural snow to fall periodically throughout the season to keep the conditions prime. In a case like this year, where the natural stuff has been less plentiful, drier snow can be made to bring slopes up to par.
Now that we’re into March, any snow that does fall is likely to be more of the wet variety as temperatures will be on the move upward. Most ski areas stop making snow after about the middle of the month, because they cannot hold on to it long enough to justify the costs.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to get a few good runs in before you read my April column. Be safe and have fun.
Jason Gough is a meteorologist with NewsChannel 13. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time-