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Winter Olympics: No snow, no problems... yet

The Beijing Games use almost 100% artificial snow, as climate change threatens to change winter sports forever.

Beijing Winter Olympics artificial snow
A snowmaking machine works at the National Cross-Country Skiing Center in Zhangjiakou, China, before the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Wu Diansen/Getty Images

Organizers of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which officially opened on Friday, have been using dozens of snow generators and hundreds of snowblowers to create 1.2 million cubic meters of powder (or about 42.4 million cubic feet).

The Games in Beijing will mark the first time athletes will compete almost entirely on artificial snow, according to a report from London's Loughbough University.

That'll likely become the norm as climate change continues, according to the report's findings, "starting with lower-altitude slopes and raising pressure and costs on higher-[altitude] resorts." 

But generating fake snow has a high environmental cost, the authors say. "Even if powered by renewables, a huge amount of energy is needed which is both costly and can be a significant drain on water resources."

And winter athletes say the artificial turf is less safe.

"Artificial snow is icier, therefore faster and more dangerous," Estonian biathlete Johanna Taliharm told the Associated Press in January. "It also hurts more if you fall outside of the course when there is no fluffy snowbank, but a rocky and muddy hard ground."

Team USA cross-country coach Chris Grover said landing in it "can feel like falling on concrete." 

Machines make snow at the Genting Snow Park where the freestyle skiing and snowboarding will be held during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Machines make snow at the Genting Snow Park, where freestyle skiing and snowboarding events are held.

Wu Diansen/Getty Images

Not everyone is critical of the fake stuff. Australian snowboarder Matt Cox, who's making his Olympic debut at Beijing, told Reuters that "with the cold temps here, it's dreamy snow."

Artificial snow is more of a tightly packed frozen slush, made from water droplets that are broken up by a high-pressure pump and then crystalize into frozen flakes.

Read more: 
How to watch the Beijing Winter Olympics: Everything to know

The International Olympic Committee maintains that artificial snow is used regularly at International Ski Federation competitions "and does not make the courses more dangerous."

"To the contrary, it creates a more consistent surface from the top to bottom -- or start to finish -- of a course," an IOC spokesperson told CNET. "The iciness and density of the surface is dependent on the needs of the given competition and the preparation of the course, not on the source of the snow."

Most ski and snowboarding events at the Beijing Games will take place in Zhangjiakou, about 110 miles northwest of Beijing, including freestyle, cross-country, ski jumping and biathlon. Skating and several additional snow events are being held at the Capital Indoor Stadium in central Beijing.

Bobsled, luge and Alpine skiing events will be held in Yanqing, a mountainous area about 45 miles from downtown Beijing that's rich in water resources, according to the IOC. Water supplies for the Olympic venues there will come from the nearby Foyukou Reservoir.

Beijing Winter Olympics 2022

The opening ceremonies for the 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled to be held in Beijing on Feb. 4.

IOC

The IOC says that the electricity used to make the snow is from renewable wind and solar energy sources. In addition, water-conservation efforts have been instituted, including snow farming -- preserving and relocating previous accumulation -- and harvesting melted snow in retaining lakes at the end of the season.

According to the committee, water usage related to snow sports for the Games won't impact nearby citizens' consumption or agriculture needs.

"The regions where the snow-sport events will be held are constantly very cold," the IOC representative said. "This allows a very efficient snow production and does not require the constant reproduction of snow, like in many ski resorts elsewhere in the world where the temperature fluctuations lead to a regular melting of the snow during a season."

However, another recent study found that, by the year 2080, only one of the past 21 Winter Olympic hosts will still have sufficient winter conditions for the Games.

The ideal conditions for making artificial snow are a "wet-bulb temperature" of about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, representing a combination of the actual temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. But the 2026 Winter Games are slated to be held in Milan, where temperatures rarely dip that low.

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing opened on Feb. 4 and will run until Feb. 20.