China Provided Abundant Snow for the Winter Olympics, but at What Cost to the Environment?

The dense artificial snow that blanketed the competition zones for the games is likely to affect water, soil, animals and plants in the mountainous regions, scientists say.

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Norway's Aleksander Aamodt Kilde competes in the mens downhill final during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre in Yanqing on Feb. 7, 2022. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
Norway's Aleksander Aamodt Kilde competes in the men's downhill final during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre in Yanqing on Feb. 7, 2022. Credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

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The Beijing 2022 Olympics wrap up this weekend, but construction and artificial snow use in the alpine and sliding sports competitions in Zhangjiakou and Yanqing could create long-term changes to the areas’ ecosystems.

Before the world’s top winter athletes took to the courses, dozens of machines supplied by Italian company TechnoAlpin blanketed the competition zones with artificial snow. The Games relied almost entirely on artificial snow, which is harder and denser than its natural counterpart.   

Most ski and snowboarding events at the Games, including freestyle, cross-country and ski jumping, are being staged at venues in Zhangjiakou, a mountainous area about 110 miles northwest of Beijing. Alpine skiing, bobsled and luge competitions are being held in Yanqing, another mountainous region, about 45 miles from the Chinese capital.   

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The Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games outlined their efforts to preserve topsoil, protect vegetation and minimize disruption to animal habitats in the Beijing Pre-Games Sustainability Report. But experts in hydrology and soil have expressed concern about whether the proposed preservation and restoration efforts will be enough to prevent harm to soil, plants and animals.   

“Its natural state would take several hundreds of years, probably, for it to regain its original status,” said Carmen de Jong, a hydrology professor at the University of Strasbourg, about the impact of bigger construction projects like the ski runs on the regions’ environments. “So either the impacts will be irreversible or there will be very strong impacts.”   

A spokesman from the Beijing Organizing Committee could not be reached for comment, despite multiple requests.

Water Supply Strain  

The two arid regions selected as venues lack the natural snow needed to hold the Olympic competitions. December through February are among the driest months for Beijing and surrounding areas with little precipitation on average reported in January, according to the World Meteorological Agency.  

While Beijing is not the first winter Olympics host to use artificial snow in its competition zones, the city is the first to exclusively use man-made snow.   

The areas also don’t have enough water to produce the amount of artificial snow needed for the Games, which led Chinese Olympic organizers to pull water from reservoirs using tens of miles of pipes. Beijing diverted water from the Balhebao Reservoir to the Guishi River—usually a dry riverbed in the winter—according a state-run newspaper.  

The water required to produce artificial snow for the Games allegedly strained local water supplies, although Beijing officials and state media have insisted to the contrary. The most recent data found Beijing has approximately 36,000 gallons of freshwater resources per resident, while Zhangjiakou had 83,000 gallons for each person. The threshold for a country to be seen as water-scarce is providing under 260,000 gallons of fresh water per person.  

But the production of artificial snow affects more than just Beijing’s water supply.  

Impact on Soil, Plants  

Artificial snow leads to changes in soil insulation and can raise soil temperatures, according to an article by de Jong in “The Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers.” The use of snow grooms to smooth the snow’s surface compounds these effects.    

“The combination of this very dense, hard artificial snow and the snow grooms compressing and working them is that there’s generally a lack of oxygen between the soil and the snow and then the soil itself also becomes very much compressed and impermeable,” de Jong said.   

Construction staff for the Olympic venues stripped, stored and reused plant seed-rich topsoil in ecological restoration projects in Yanqing, the Beijing Organizing Committee said in the sustainability report. The committee wrote that “the restoration into the natural state has been successfully achieved,” but did not elaborate on the meaning of successful restoration.   

Decreases in the soil’s ability to transmit fluids can hinder water infiltration and increase surface water runoff, contributing to erosion.    

“There’s probably going to be a lot of problems with erosion,” de Jong said. “So where they took away the trees and the vegetation that has been replaced by ski runs that now run vertically to the slopes…that means that these areas concentrate the water, they concentrate the sediments that will cause erosion. Once erosion has started, it’s very difficult to stop it.”  

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And changes to the soil have ripple effects for plant life.   

“The snowmaking enterprise in and of itself…disturbs the vegetation in a pretty significant way,” said Noah Molotch, an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder who specializes in surface water and snow hydrology.   

Molotch said the artificial snow affects the distribution of water and the temperature of the soil. That, in turn, affects “soil productivity, in part because of the water availability, but also because those cycles influence nutrient availability because soil temperatures and water both impact nutrient availability.”  

Changes to the availability of water, energy and nutrients can influence the distribution of plants across the landscape, he said. Alterations to the soil created by snow could also affect growing periods for plants in the region.    

“With excessively compacted snow cover, snow duration can be prolonged by an average of two weeks,” Csilla Hudek, a senior research associate in the Lancaster Environment Center at Lancaster University, said. “This would lessen the vegetative period of plants, which reduces the abundance of early flower plants and favors late species, shortening the period for seed propagation.”  

After the Olympic games, the Yanqing zone will offer year-round tourism with an opportunity for winter sports, according to the Beijing 2022 Olympics website. The Zhangjiakou zone, which includes an existing commercial ski resort, will continue operating as a sports training facility.   

But as global temperatures rise, demand for artificial snow production may put greater strain on local water supplies as climate change affects precipitation patterns.  

The continuation of commercial use transitions the natural areas developed for the Games into what Molotch refers to as a more “managed landscape,” where there’s significant human intervention on the structure of the landscape and the plants and animals which grow or reside in the area.   

“By making snow and putting snow in that environment,” Molotch said, “it doesn’t necessarily sound like something that’s ecologically destructive, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have profound ecological impact.”

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