Beijing Looks to ‘Making’ Snow

While Beijing has won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, questions are being raised about the environmental impact of creating artificial snow. PHOTO: BBC

While Beijing has won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, questions are being raised about the environmental impact of creating artificial snow. PHOTO: BBC

Beijing is still celebrating its chance to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision means China’s capital will become the first city to host the summer and winter events. The candidate cities were down to just Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, after a number of other cities including Krakow, Poland, and Oslo, Norway, dropped out of the bidding, many citing public opposition to the expense of hosting the games. Despite Kazakhstan’s recent oil and gas-driven economic boom, Beijing was considered the safer choice, given that China proved during the 2008 Summer Games that it can put on quite a show. So, think Winter Games, think snow. And where is that going to come from?

Kazakhstan had sought to capitalise on what many had seen as Beijing’s achilles heel – a shortage of snow. The slogan for the Almaty 2022 bid – “Keeping it real” – was a not-so-subtle swipe at China’s promise to compensate with artificial snow. While it can get pretty chilly, Beijing isn’t typically thought of as a winter sports wonderland. Three inches of snow is considered a record-breaking blizzard there. The plan is to hold the snow-based competitions in Zhangjiakou in Heibei province, about 120 miles north of the city.

Beijing is not a mountainous city, so the skiing, snowboarding and sliding events will be held in Yanqing, 55 miles away from the capital, and Zhangjiakou, 100 miles away – on the edge of the Gobi desert. But even these remote venues see minimal snowfall – Zhangjiakou averages eight inches of the white stuff per year, while Yanqing gets a miserly two inches.

Even the IOC’s own bid evaluation noted: “Due to the lack of natural snow the look of the venue may not be aesthetically pleasing.” So, unlike wintry Almaty – which not-so-subtly trumpeted its major selling point with its cheeky campaign slogan ‘Keeping It Real’ – Beijing will be pumping out tonnes of artificial snow.

Snow cannon will be used to super-cool water from nearby lakes and reservoirs and eject it as ice crystals. There is a precedent for this: the organisers of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – one of Russia’s warmest regions – created enough snow to cover 1,000 football fields. But there are concerns over the environmental impact of this process: the Sochi snow-making system used enough water to empty an Olympic swimming pool every hour.

In addition, there are human rights concerns. China is in the midst of a severe offensive against dissent that has seen scores of people detained or interrogated in recent weeks. Add to it China’s lack of tradition with winter games, being seen as an outsider, and the Games seem to already have its large share of doubt.

More on the ‘snow debate’ here.

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