My SkiMail inbox has seen way more the usual inquiries or matter-of-“fact” statements (that are NOT fact-based) pertaining to various reasons why ski areas in the southeast and mid-Atlantic have not been making snow until “the last minute”.
While many seem to have some environmental reason as to why the delay, none really seem to grasp the REAL reason.
So here are some opinions from our emails and social media links:
Bradshaw C. states, “They’re waiting to make the most of our limited water.”
Melissa A. wrote, “I’ve noticed that even Sugar is not making snow like they’ve done in the last ten years. It is simply a matter of water, or the drought. No water, no snowmaking.”
Ben S. emailed, “The whole region is suffering from a drought. Many areas are burning from wildfires. Ski resorts can’t make snow without water.”
Okay, step away from the bong, it’s not what you think. YES, areas of North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee are suffering from a moderate-to-severe drought. Only West Virginia has most of the state totally clear of any drought conditions. However, that is NOT why our ski areas have not been making snow. Before I give away “the secret”, let’s address the water supply.
I remember a few years ago driving to and from Cataloochee Ski Area and coming across huge digital signage across I-40 warning people of drought conditions, wildfires, smoke from it, and limited sight on the roadways. I came across two more, huge wildfires near Marion, North Carolina as seemingly the entire state was on fire. I remember rushing home to my trusty computer only to find that this was nothing out of the ordinary.
Simply put, more people in the media seem to be talking about fires and drought conditions a lot more with environmental issues being a favorite topic.
How About ALL of the North Carolina Wildfires Going On RIGHT NOW?!?!?!
Well, let’s take a look. The National Interagency Fire Center statistics show that as of November 7, 2023, there have been 48,681 fires this year. Oh My Gosh! That IS terrible! Why aren’t we talking about this MORE! Those fires have burned 2.54 MILLION acres!
Okay, I should not make light of that. It kind of IS NOT a good thing.
HOWEVER, those numbers are BELOW the 10-year average of 49,015 fires that burn each year. Even crazier is the fact that this year is SIGNIFICANTLY below the 10-year average acreage burned of 6.56 MILLION acres.
I won’t get into the fact that there are ecological BENEFITS of forest fires.
Let’s Get Back On The Reason for this Post…
So, we’ll settle on the fact that the entire region, except for MAYBE our brothers in West Virginia could use a slow, soaking, two-to-three inches of rain to take us completely out of any hint of a drought. (Okay maybe a bit more.)
Over my 27+ years of covering the Southeast snow sports and mountain ops crew – I have had many related conversations about water supply. Back in 2016, when those wildfires were being reported as the largest in North Carolina recorded history, and when all of Western North Carolina was suffering from a “historic” drought – I remember fielding questions from viewers and readers about how arrogant ski area mountain ops people are to be making snow with everyone suffering so. After all, many argued, it takes HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF GALLONS to spew the slopes with fresh powder.
How DO they get away with this???
Notice the Photo BELOW. It is from Appalachian Ski Mountain and if you’ll notice there is a pond or reservoir at the base of the mountain in the bottom-right portion of the photo.
They don’t “get away” with anything. They have THEIR OWN PRIVATE WATER SOURCES. I have had this discussion with more than a few mountain managers and the answer is the same each time.
We make snow on the mountain. When the man-made snow melts, it replenishes the water tables or drains BACK into the surrounding lakes and ponds – which positively effects the local water supply. They basically recycle water.
Chris Bates of Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley, NC once shared that they have two reservoirs on their property. He once shared that it takes up to 400,000 gallons of water to make snow for 24 hours. Those reservoirs fill from rain, mountain-runoff and snow melt. They blast that water onto the mountain in the form of snow and it all immediately starts working its way back into the reservoir to do it all over again.
Longtime friend and past mountain ops guru at Snoweshoe Mountain, Ed Galford, once told me the same is true of their mountain and Shavers Lake at the bottom. Wisp Resort has a symbiotic relationship with Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.
They ALL do.
So then WHY OH WHY Have Resorts NOT Been Making Snow?
Because it has to be cold enough. That’s it. Nothing else to see here. You can’t turn water into snow without the temperature being at or below 32° or so. The facts are, if you have been watching the LIVE SKI RESORT CAMS and have noticed that they are not making snow, simply pull up the weather/temperature ON those mountain tops and you most often see that the temperatures have been higher than freezing.
When you put your beer in the refrigerator, does it freeze? No. You’d have to put the can in the freezer, where the temps are 32° or colder to make it become more solid. The same is true for the balance of water-becoming-snow. 36°, you get cold water. Drop the temperature to 27° and you’ll get frozen precipitation.
The only OTHER reason that a ski area might not have made snow on a particular night is because they have seen the weather forecast for the next few days and it might be forecasting RAIN or mild conditions for a prolonged period.
So, don’t fret. There’s PLENTY of water at the resorts to make snow. Now, of course it NEVER hurts to have a little bit more in the reserves. So THINK RAIN…or at least well timed rain…or better yet, SNOW!
Until next time, email me as you like at [email protected]
Be sure to check out the chatter about resort openings happening over on our new SkiSoutheast Discord Channel.
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