Armed and dangerous: the winter snow guns

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The Independent Online

It's deep winter, the season when smart Europeans strap their skis to the 4x4 and head for the Alps or Pyrenees to enjoy an exhilarating swoosh down the slopes - accompanied by the rumble and waste of the artificial snow machine.

The snow gun, which sprays these still-green slopes with the fluffy white stuff nature is increasingly reluctant to provide, has become as much a fixture of the winter sports scene as the chair lift, but much more environmentally damaging.

An estimated 98 per cent of Europe's ski resorts now have snow makers, and some places are totally dependent on fake flakes. Without these groaning monsters that belch fake snow from one end while consuming huge amounts of power at the other, no ski resort in the Catalan Pyrenees would have opened this season.

The use of snow cannons has doubled in the past 10 years. More than 2,000 machines were working the Catalan pistes at the start of this season - 547 of them in the resort of Baqueira Beret- whitening 280km of runs.

But the energy used to keep the machines spewing snow has tripled. Catalonia's nine main ski regions have contracted some 9,000kW of electricity to keep their business alive - enough to power a town of 15,000 people. Some resorts face bills of €300,000 (£200,000) to keep snow on the ground. That's after paying €10,000 for each cannon.

This squandering of power has been forced upon Catalonia by the lack of snow, which threatens one of Spain's most important economic sectors: the high-end tourism market. This year is worse than before - with visitor numbers down 50 per cent - not only because of the mild winter, but what cold air there is lacks precipitation and hence snow. This means thirsty snow machines must draw on water from depleted lakes and reservoirs.

The campaigners Ecologists in Action say it's a vicious circle: lack of snow increases the use of machines, which boosts the emission of CO 2, increases global warming and makes the snow even scarcer.

Jose Enrique Vazquez, an environmental expert, says resorts could curb energy waste if they installed renewable systems. So next time you sweep down the snowy Pyrenees, watch out for wind turbines among the cable cars.

POWDER FACTS

* Americans Wayne Pierce, Art Hunt and Dave Richey created the first snow machine in 1950.

* The average Alpine resort has 100-200 snow machines, but in the Dolomites it can be up to 300 or more.

* Snow guns typically run for 1,000 hours a year using 18kW an hour.

* A resort with 300 machines uses 5.4m kW a year.

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