Tale of an Alpine Makeover Snowmaking Machine Helps Ski Resort Battle Global Warming

Global warming has left many ski resorts in the Alps struggling to maintain their snowy slopes -- and their business. But technology has come to the rescue of Austria's Pitztal Valley, which now boasts an Israeli-made snowmaking machine.


This is not the sort of snow that drifts gracefully from the heavens. Instead, it surges rhythmically from the narrow opening in an otherwise windowless building, hitting the ground with a thud.

The glacial ski resort in Pitztal, a valley in Austria's Tyrol region, is now capable of producing nearly a thousand cubic meters (35,000 cubic feet) of artificial snow a day, regardless of temperature and natural precipitation. The system, called the "All Weather Snowmaker," originates in Israel, and will "sustainably secure" ski tourism in the area, says Martina Dobler, spokeswoman for the local tourism organization.

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Photo Gallery: An Alpine Answer to Global Warming

That word choice might cause some chilly dissonance in the ears of nature lovers. "Sustainability" usually only comes to the lips when the topic is saving the planet -- and pouring artificial powder onto ski slopes that are melting due to climate change hardly fits that definition.

But the All Weather Snowmaker could be a blessing for Pitztal's local economy. In fact, it could be the last chance to save the valley from ruin.

Austria's highest elevation glacial ski region, whose cable car reaches 3,440 meters (11,290 feet), used to be accessible for winter sports year-round. Now the industry shuts down between May and September. In recent years, the season has kicked off, with increasing difficulties, in mid-September. The reason for the delay: The slopes have literally run away.

By the lift's lower terminal at 2,840 meters (9,320 feet), marketing director Willi Krüger points to a wooden post sticking out of the ground. "The glacier used to reach this far," he says. The entrance to the gondola was accessible by ski year-round. Now the glacier doesn't start until another 200 meters (660 feet) further up. Below lie boulders, making the approach even more difficult.

Ski Slope or Rocky Moonscapes

Snow falling on an alpine meadow quickly forms a good ski slope. Glacial areas, on the other hand, are more like rocky moonscapes. Without an ice crust, new snow doesn't form quickly into a surface appropriate for skiing. Snow machines don't help much either. For one thing, they can only be used when the weather is below freezing, because the state of Tyrol forbids the bacteria and chemicals that in other areas mean snow can be created at above-freezing temperatures. In addition, the autumn cold often brings strong winds, which make it impossible to lay a complete snow covering. "The stuff flies around everywhere, but doesn't land where you need it," Krüger complains.

The region had a real problem. The early season is its trump card. Professionals and youth teams from many countries start their training here in late summer -- and lifts filled with prominent alpine athletes and their high-tech equipment lures other tourists.

But that only works if the lower end of the lift is accessible. If those last 200 meters are missing, the whole experience becomes significantly more arduous.

The slope needed an artificial limb. And there were big celebrations in Pitztal when it turned out just such a thing was available in the form of the All Weather Snowmaker.

Israel-based IDE Technologies Ltd. is one of the major players in the world of artificial snow. Located near Tel Aviv, the company has been working with a vacuum ice technique for more than 15 years. At first the process was intended to be used for seawater desalinization, but now it is predominantly used to create enormous quantities of snow as a coolant for gold mines.

Large-scale systems in South Africa, for example, manufacture up to 2,000 cubic meters (70,600 cubic feet) of snow a day. This is used to bring temperatures in the kilometers-deep mines, sometimes reaching over 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), down to a level humans can survive. The engineers sometimes modeled miniature ski slopes on the surface of the snow as a joke, but project manager Moshe Tessel explains, "No one was imagining a new business opportunity."


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