BEIJING — China hasn’t moved mountains to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. But it has flooded a dry riverbed, diverted water from a key reservoir that feeds Beijing and resettled hundreds farmers and their families, all to power one of the largest snowmaking operations in Games history.
This is what happens when the International Olympic Committee decides to bring the Winter Games to a place almost completely devoid of one of the main ingredients of winter sports: snow. Moreover, Beijing and its neighboring mountains also did not have so much water to make the artificial type.
Artificial snow has played a major role in winter sports for decades, even in snowier places like Norway, Switzerland and Colorado. In Beijing’s version of the Winter Games, the competitions which begin this weekend will for the first time be held almost entirely on artificial snow, requiring an Olympic snowmaking and water management operation of colossal scale. , and prefiguring the reality of snow sports all over the world. as the planet warms.
On the mountains where alpine competitions are held, which have no recreational skiing, narrow white bands, visible from miles away, now bisect the brown mountains.
Beijing officials insist producing snow for the Games will not put a strain on local water supplies, which are struggling to keep pace with the city’s demands. But China’s Herculean investments in snowmaking are part of larger efforts to turn the barren mountains near Beijing into a permanent ski and snowboarding hub, a project that could face challenges as the climate change disrupts rainfall and drought patterns.
Around the world, the eco-unfriendly secret of ski and snowboard competitions is that, as natural snow becomes less reliable, they are almost always held on the man-made kind. As the planet continues to warm, artificial snow will play an increasingly important role in ensuring a consistent, high-caliber playing field.
“You couldn’t have winter sports now without artificial snow,” said Michael Mayr, Asia director of TechnoAlpin, the Italian company in charge of snowmaking for the Beijing Games and six Olympic Games in Beijing. previous winters.
What sets Beijing apart from many of these past sites is its low water supply, whether for snowmaking or anything else. In recent decades, rapid development has undermined Beijing’s groundwater. July and August often bring heavy rain, but the city and nearby mountains only get raindrops in winter: less than 2.5 inches per season on average for the past few decades, according to data from a weather station. near the Olympic venues.
In 2017, the latest year for which international figures are available, Beijing had only about as much freshwater resources per capita – 36,000 gallons – as the West African country of Niger, bordering the Sahara. Zhangjiakou, the city 100 miles northwest of the capital that will host skiing and snowboarding events, had 83,000 gallons per capita, comparable to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
The United States, on the other hand, had 2.3 million gallons per person. Countries with less than 260,000 gallons of freshwater resources per person are considered water-scarce.
Florian Hajzeri, who has been in China for four years supervising TechnoAlpin’s snowmaking project, said he realized the magnitude of his task as soon as he saw the landscape of the Olympic competition areas.
“There are trees and vegetation, but it’s not like an alpine forest: it’s vegetation for a drier climate,” he said. “It’s snowing, but it’s not enough for competitions.”
Before TechnoAlpin could install pumps and build more than 40 miles of pipes, at a cost of almost $60 million, Chinese authorities first had to find a way to supply enough water to the mountains.
How much water? About 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 likely be needed as competitions take place.
To pull it all together, Chinese authorities have built pumping stations to transport water from reservoirs miles away.
According to an official newspaper, Beijing diverted water from the city’s Baihebao Reservoir to the Guishui River, which flows near the Olympic area but had long since dried up in winter. Previously, Baihebao mainly supplied Miyun Reservoir, one of the largest household drinking water reservoirs in Beijing.
Officials in Zhangjiakou – which is pronounced a bit like “jong jah coe” – turned off irrigation on tens of thousands of acres to conserve groundwater and resettled farmers who lived in what is now the area of Olympic competition in high-rise apartments.
Modern China is no stranger to monumental water projects. Its greatest effort to alleviate Beijing’s water problems began long before the Olympics: a colossal series of waterways that transfer trillions of gallons of water a year from the country’s wet south to its thirsty north. Hundreds of thousands of villagers were displaced to make way for the canals. Water from the project accounted for one-sixth of Beijing’s water supply in 2020.
While the Chinese government has made progress on water issues in recent years, scientists and environmentalists say the capital cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
“They still need to do more to conserve water, increase water use efficiency, and ensure social equity in water allocation,” said Ximing Cai, professor of water engineering. water resources at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. If the Olympics spur a burst of economic development in the hills near Beijing, he said, “the associated water use must be planned carefully.”
But climate change could both increase northern China’s water needs and affect southern China’s ability to supply it. Scientists have found that recent heat waves and floods in China were much more likely to occur due to human-induced climate change.
“In the context of global warming, the risks for major infrastructure projects in China are increasing,” Zheng Guoguang, the country’s then-top meteorological official, told a Communist Party newspaper in 2015, citing the proposed transfer South North.
The Chinese authorities say they limit the impact of snowmaking, in particular because the snow produced will be collected after it has melted so that it can be reused.
But scientists studying snowmaking have found that some of the water evaporates after it’s expelled from a cannon but before it can crystallize into flakes. Some of the flakes are blown away. Some droplets do not freeze completely and end up flowing into the ground.
Two Swiss researchers, Thomas Grünewald and Fabian Wolfsperger, conducted experiments at a ski resort near Davos and found that up to 35% of the water used for snowmaking was lost in this way. (Water that seeps into the ground isn’t completely gone, of course. It helps replenish groundwater.)
Still, Wolfsperger said, “It’s definitely not environmentally friendly” to build a ski resort near a water-scarce place like Beijing. “But winter sports have never been that in general.”
Other research has shown that artificial ski slopes can erode soil and degrade vegetation, regardless of the type of snow they use.
For skiers and snowboarders, competing entirely on artificial snow changes everything about how they prepare for the Olympics, the biggest event of most of their lives, from the wax they use to increase the speed, in training for the increased risk of a smoother surface. . In hot weather, artificial snow surfaces tend to break down faster than natural snow, athletes said.
“It’s not the first time we’ve raced on artificial snow, and sadly it doesn’t look like it’ll be the last,” said Jessie Diggins, 2018 cross country gold medalist and turned activist. of climate change. during the last years.
“It’s harder and more icy and turns differently depending on the weather,” she said. “And because it’s faster, some descents ski much faster when you’re riding. That can make the course – I don’t mean dangerous – but harder to figure out how you’re going to navigate the turns.”
In certain conditions, however, such as the very cold temperatures expected in China, downhill skiers sometimes prefer artificial snow, as technicians can produce wet flakes that freeze into the type of smooth, hard surface they prefer.
“It’s denser,” said Travis Ganong, an American sprinter. “It doesn’t really flake, and when it’s groomed, it gets more packed. It sits really well and becomes very even. It’s actually how we like it.
Keith Bradsher contributed report.