Science

Winter Olympics: NASA satellite image reveals how much the FAKE snow stands out at skiing venue


To fashion and maintain ski routes on China‘s arid Xiaohaituo Mountain, the Beijing Winter Olympics will use a whopping 42.4 million cubic feet of controversial fake snow produced by hundreds of machines. 

And nowhere is the astonishing artifice of this ‘winter wonderland’ more clear than in a satellite image of the Yanqing Olympic Zone — home to the alpine skiing and sliding events — recently released by NASA.

The shot, taken by Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager instrument on 29 January, throws the difference between the tracks of white and the rest of the bare mountain into sharp relief. 

According to NASA, Xiaohaituo Mountain (aka ‘the rock’) usually only sees 1.3 inches of snow in February, leaving many questioning the sense in the choice of venue.

According to the ‘Slippery Slopes‘ report recently published by Loughborough University, the Beijing Winter Games is the first to rely almost entirely on artificial snow.

The experts have warned that fake snow could become the norm for many ski resorts — especially those at lower altitudes — as climate change continues to cause global temperatures to rise.

However, its use at the Olympics has been met with backlash from athletes warning that the snow can be more dangerous and environmentalists decrying the impact of the chemicals used on the surroundings.

To fashion and maintain ski routes on China’s arid Xiaohaituo Mountain, the Beijing Winter Olympics will need to use 42.4 million cubic feet of controversial fake snow. And nowhere is the astonishing artifice of this ‘winter wonderland’ more clear than in a satellite image of the Yanqing Olympic Zone recently released by NASA, pictured

The shot, taken on 29 January by the Operational Land Imager instrument on the Landsat 8 satellite — depicted in this artist's impression —  throws the difference between the tracks of white and the rest of the bare mountain into sharp relief

The shot, taken on 29 January by the Operational Land Imager instrument on the Landsat 8 satellite — depicted in this artist’s impression —  throws the difference between the tracks of white and the rest of the bare mountain into sharp relief

The experts have warned that fake snow could become the norm for many ski resorts — especially those at lower altitudes — as climate change continues to cause global temperatures to rise. However, its use at the Olympics has met with backlash from athletes warning that the snow can be more dangerous and environmentalists decrying the impact of the chemicals used on the surroundings. Pictured: a snow cannon

The experts have warned that fake snow could become the norm for many ski resorts — especially those at lower altitudes — as climate change continues to cause global temperatures to rise. However, its use at the Olympics has met with backlash from athletes warning that the snow can be more dangerous and environmentalists decrying the impact of the chemicals used on the surroundings. Pictured: a snow cannon

What’s the issue with artificial snow? 

At Winter Olympics, China will use almost 100 per cent artificial snow, as well as chemicals to slow the melt.

Worryingly, this delivers a surface that many competitors say is unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

The fake snow is also expected to require a huge volume of water and energy to produce.

China could need as much as two million cubic meters of water to create enough fake snow to cover ski runs and access roads during the Games. 

According to the Loughborough report, to manufacture enough snow to last for the duration of this year’s Winter Olympics the Beijing Games will need to pipe in some 59 million gallons of water from the nearby Foyukou and Baihepu reservoirs by means of three different pumping stations. 

All this liquid will be chilled by eight water cooling towers before being blasted through one of 300 snow cannons powered by 130 electrical generators, to come out the other side as the white fluffy stuff.

According to Beijing officials, all of the power needed to produce this dusting of snow will be provided from renewable energy sources, but nevertheless, environmentalists remain concerned.

Part of the problem lies in the chemicals which are used to increase the lifetime of fake snow before it melts away, with such having the potential to damage plants buried under the artificial drifts as well as to leach out in the wider area.

Alongside this, the presence melting of artificial snow can disrupt the natural cycles of both local flora and fauna— for example by delaying plant growth under the ice pack — while the noise pollution from snow cannons can disturb wildlife.

Artificial snow also comes with a quite different structural composition to its natural counterpart, with impacts on the athletes using it for sport.

‘Artificial snow is almost 30 per cent ice and 70 per cent air, compared to natural snow which is closer to 10 per cent ice and 90 per cent air — thereby creating a grittier snowpack,’ Loughborough University’s Madeliene Orr and colleagues wrote in their report.

These differences, they explained, create slopes with surfaces that are both faster and harder, ‘creating a risk of more severe injuries when falls do occur.’ 

This year’s Winter Games have already seen a number of athletes getting involved in accidents, including US skier Nina O’Brien who incurred compound fractures in one leg following a crash in the finishing area and Germany’s Dominik Schwaiger who was airlifted to hospital with a suspected broken arm following a fall.

Of course, injuries are part and parcel of such competitive sports and it is impossible to determine whether or not these particular accidents resulted from the choice of snow, although a statistical analysis of all the events at the games’ conclusion may be able to shine light on the kind of impact such has had overall this year.

Alongside the satellite image of the Yanqing Olympic Zone, NASA have also released a couple of other satellite images of the Beijing region — which lies nestled at the intersection of the Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges at the edge of the North China Plain. The first is a 3D composite of the region showing the three Winter Games venues — those of central Beijing (which will host the indoor events of curling, ice hockey and skating) and, to the west, the slopes of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou

Alongside the satellite image of the Yanqing Olympic Zone, NASA have also released a couple of other satellite images of the Beijing region — which lies nestled at the intersection of the Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges at the edge of the North China Plain. The first is a 3D composite of the region showing the three Winter Games venues — those of central Beijing (which will host the indoor events of curling, ice hockey and skating) and, to the west, the slopes of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou

The third image released by NASA focusses in on central Beijing, and highlights the Beijing National Stadium (also known as the Bird's Nest) where the opening and closing ceremonies for the games are being held, as well as the Speed Skating Oval

The third image released by NASA focusses in on central Beijing, and highlights the Beijing National Stadium (also known as the Bird’s Nest) where the opening and closing ceremonies for the games are being held, as well as the Speed Skating Oval

Alongside the satellite image of the Yanqing Olympic Zone, NASA have also released a couple of other satellite images of the Beijing region, which lies nestled at the intersection of the Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges at the edge of the North China Plain. 

The first is a three-dimensional composite of the region showing the three Winter Games venues — those of central Beijing (which will host the indoor events of curling, ice hockey and skating) and, to the west, the slopes of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou.

The latter — which, unlike Yanqing, receives more natural snow — will host various skiing and snowboarding events, including the biathlon, cross-country and Nordic combined. 

The 3D image was created by combining data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer — a sensor system loaded aboard both NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites — with a digital elevation model from the digital elevation model from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.

The third image released by NASA focusses in on central Beijing, and highlights the Beijing National Stadium (also known as the Bird’s Nest) where the opening and closing ceremonies for the games are being held, as well as the Speed Skating Oval. 

Events of the 2022 Winter Olympics

Events will be held in 15 disciplines across seven sports at the Beijing 2022 Games.

In total, 109 sets of medals will be awarded, seven more than there were at PyeongChang 2018.

New events will be contested in bobsleigh, short track, freestyle skiing, ski jumping, and snowboard.

The full list of events is as follows:

  • Alpine Skiing
  • Biathlon
  • Bobsleigh
  • Cross-Country Skiing
  • Curling
  • Figure Skating
  • Freestyle Skiing
  • Ice Hockey
  • Luge
  • Nordic Combined
  • Short Track Speed Skating
  • Skeleton
  • Ski Jumping
  • Snowboard
  • Speed Skating



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