The main difference between manmade snow and real snow is that real snow has more air and less water. This gives natural snow a lighter feel that you can experience when skiing through fresh powder that falls from the sky rather than machines.
I’ve been skiing for most of my life, and I’ve encountered just about every type of snow condition you can imagine. I’ve skied on both artificial and natural snow, and I know the differences between the two.
This post will explain the difference between manmade snow and real snow. This is good information for every skier to understand to give you an idea of what snow conditions might be encountered when you hit the slopes.
Bring on the snow.
How is Manmade Snow Made?
It’s important to understand how manmade snow is made to see how it differs from real snow that falls from the sky.
Snow machines throw water droplets into the air on the side of a ski slope. These water droplets then freeze and form snowflakes which pile up on the runs and make a base layer that can be skied on.
The snow-making machines shoot the water up into the air anywhere from about 10 to 30 meters to give the water enough time and space to freeze and actually turn into snow.
Artificial snowmaking has been around for decades, and it is common at most of the major ski resorts across the world. It provides a good way to supplement natural snowfall and make sure the runs at ski resorts can be skied on.
The Big Difference: Water Content
Looking at manmade and real snow from a scientific perspective, the big difference between the two is water content.
Manmade snow has a lot more water in it than real snow. Manmade snow is made up of about 70% air and 30% water. Real snow is made up of about 90% air and 10% water. This means that artificial snow has nearly three times as much water content as real snow.
What does water content have to do with snow?
Well, it plays an essential role in how snowflakes form and impacts their structure. This, in turn, affects how the snow feels for skiers when they ski down it.
And why does manmade snow have more water in it?
Since manmade snow begins as water droplets shoot into the air 10 to 30 meters, it doesn’t take as long to fall to the ground after it turns into snow. This doesn’t allow for as much air to fill in between the crystals of a snowflake.
Real snow falls for hundreds or thousands of feet from clouds in the sky. As it falls, more air can get in between each snowflake and the crystals within the flakes. This results in more air and less water.
The higher water content in manmade snow makes the snowflakes very dense. This results in compact snowflakes that are round in shape and somewhat heavy. They stack up thick on one another.
The increased amount of air in real snow makes it less dense and lighter. Real snow forms the traditional snowflake shape that I’m sure you are familiar with. Compare this shape to a compact circle or raindrop, and you have a better idea of the different densities between snows.
These densities affect how snow stacks up. Real snow, with more air, stakes up softer, resulting in powder conditions that are pillowy and thick. Manmade snow stacks up heavier and closer together, resulting in harder conditions.
Differences in Skiing
Real snow and manmade snow can feel very different from one another when you are skiing on them. If you talk to any serious skier, they will tell you that real snow is always better than manmade, and I agree entirely.
Real snow is, well, real. It stacks up in soft powder, which leads to ideal skiing conditions that most of us genuinely love and search for as often as possible. Softer snow is more fun, easier to ski, and more forgiving.
Artificial snow doesn’t really turn into powder. It quickly becomes hardpacked and icy, leading to less ideal skiing conditions that are more challenging to turn and stay in control on. It’s still snow, but it’s just not as good of snow.
Natural snow can also get hard-packed and icy, and this occurs after the fresh snow has been skied on a lot or gone through several freeze/thaw cycles that compact it away from a powder state.
Manmade snow can’t really ever turn into powder that we all love to ski on. Even if you let those snow machines run for days, the snow won’t stack up softly in the same way that natural snow. It’s just the nature of increased water content and denser flakes.
Manmade Snow: Pros and Cons
Even though natural snow is always better than manmade snow, manmade snow is better than no snow at all. This is the primary reason why artificial snow exists in the first place: to create snow when it’s not snowing.
Manmade snow allows ski resorts to throwing layers of snow down on the slopes and isn’t reliant on natural weather patterns. This increases overall coverage, leading to better ski conditions, especially if fresh snow sits on top of the manmade stuff.
The downside is that manmade snow simply isn’t as good as real snow. It’s not as soft and leads to icy and hardpack conditions that can be challenging to ski on, even for really good skiers.
Another con of manmade snow is that it requires large amounts of water and energy to create. Snowmaking is a resource-intensive process that obviously isn’t as environmentally friendly as snow falling from the sky.
Real Snow: Pros and Cons
The primary advantage of real snow is that it’s the real deal! There really isn’t anything better for skiing than lots of fresh snow blanketing the mountain in a deep layer of soft, pillowy powder. Real snow creates far better skiing conditions than artificial snow.
Real snow also doesn’t require any special tools, equipment, or resources to create. It falls from the sky and can stack up deep in the mountains during the winter months.
This disadvantage to real snow is that we can’t control when or where it falls. Natural weather patterns and climate change impact how much snow falls, and sometimes there isn’t enough snow to allow for skiing.
Manmade snow eliminates this issue by allowing snow coverage to occur when it’s not snowing. You can’t always predict when or how much real snow will fall, but you can almost always turn on the snow-making machines.
The primary difference between manmade and real snow is that real snow has less water content. This results in more powder-like conditions that skiers all over the world enjoy because it’s easier and more fun to ski on.
Manmade snow still has its place and allows ski resorts to supplement coverage and make snow when there isn’t any real stuff falling from the ski. And I’d take a day of skiing on artificial snow over not skiing at all, wouldn’t you?!