Why Are the Winter Olympics Happening in a Place With Hardly Any Real Snow?

Beijing 2022 will use 49 million gallons of water to make snow for ski events.

snow-making machine sprays hillside in Zhangjiakou, China, ahead of Beijing 2022 Olympic Games

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The Beijing Winter Olympics are set to kick off in February 2022. The venues are ready, the testing events were successful, and the World Health Organization says China's anti-COVID-19 plan looks strong. The only thing that's missing is significant amounts of natural snow—an ingredient that one might think is a prerequisite for any country hosting the Winter Olympics, but that the selection committee apparently did not see as a barrier.

China has handled this lack of snow by firing up hundreds of snow-making machines to fill the desert mountains of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou (55 and 100 miles, respectively, from Beijing) with manmade snow. These runs will accommodate the numerous snow-based alpine events scheduled to take place, from freestyle, cross-country, and ski jumping, to Nordic and biathlon.

Environmental Costs

Making snow to supplement an already partially-snowy mountainside is one thing (as is commonly done at ski resorts throughout Europe and North America), but to create it entirely from scratch is an ambitious undertaking with serious environmental costs.


Beijing will need an estimated 49 million gallons of water to create the artificial snow required for its events. Wired calculated in 2019 that "it takes 900,000 liters [238,000 gallons] of water ... to put a foot of snow on one acre of land."

The same was done in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Enough snow was made to cover the equivalent of 1,000 football fields, but as the BBC reported shortly after the event, this snow-making system "used enough water to empty an Olympic swimming pool every hour."

mountain view at Yanqing, China, where Winter Olympics 2022 will be held

Dom Turner / Getty Images

Beijing is already considered to be an extremely water-stressed city, with each of its 21 million inhabitants allocated 185 cubic meters per year. CBS says this is less than a fifth of the supply needed per United Nations standards. 

Excessive use of water is the first of what U.K.-based sustainable tourism company Responsible Travel calls "the seven deadly sins of artificial snow." When snow is made during winter, it draws from water sources when they're at their lowest. Furthermore, this coincides with peak tourism season, when there's higher demand for water for cooking, bathing, and doing laundry. This reduces access and drives up the cost of water for local inhabitants.

Noise Pollution

Another environmental concern is noise, which comes from the 60- to 80-decibel level of the average snow cannon—and there are many of these on a ski hill at any given time, with 200 operating in Yanqing alone. "It's easy to picture the detrimental effect of that noise, for hours at a time throughout the season, will have on mountain wildlife," writes Joanna Simmons for Responsible Travel.

And we know there is wildlife nearby because the Yanqing alpine ski area is located in what was formerly part of the Songshan National Nature Reserve. That is, until a map was circulated post-Olympic selection revealing this to be so, and then, according to the Guardian, the park's boundaries were redrawn, so that "none of the Olympic runs were in the extended nature reserve."

Snow Melt

A further environmental concern centers on the increased runoff from fake snow melting in spring that leads to erosion and changes in soil composition. In 2008 German newspaper Spiegel reported that artificial snow melts two to three weeks later than normal snow, presumably because of its icier consistency:

"Adding to the worry is the fact that artificial snow melt contains more minerals and nutrients than regular melt water. One consequence of the different composition is an alteration of the natural ground covering, as plants with higher nutritional requirements suddenly begin to dominate."

(When Treehugger reached out to Alpine Canada for comment, it declined an interview, but a spokesperson did say that the "majority of ski races are held on manufactured snow, so this element should not impact the athletes’ ability to perform at the Winter Games.")


Then there's the issue of energy required to make fake snow. Vast amounts of water have to be pumped uphill to where the snow cannons are at work, spraying tiny ice balls and water droplets into the air where they freeze and fall to the ground.

Wired explains that low outdoor temperatures are essential to the process. "If it's not cold enough—ideally around 2.5 degrees Celsius—the machines simply cease to work properly." That's where even more expensive specialized machines come in, ones that chill the water ahead of ejection to ensure freezing when outdoor temperatures are too warm.

Liu Junyan, Climate and Energy project leader in Greenpeace East Asia's Beijing office, told Treehugger, "The two main environmental concerns for artificial snow are water use and energy use. Energy use is a major concern. There is a positive feedback loop that the atmosphere gets hotter and we emit more carbon dioxide trying to replace the snow that doesn't come anymore. So, it's important that artificial snow not increase fossil fuel combustion."

China has said it will use only renewable energy from wind, solar, and hydro to power the Olympics Games—a confusing promise from a country that powers much of its economy with coal. But as CBS reports, "The city of Zhangjiakou, one of the three Olympic hubs, has installed wind farms spanning hundreds of acres that can produce 14 million kilowatts of electricity—similar to the power Singapore can produce." And there are hillsides covered with solar panels that will presumably generate another seven million kilowatts.

a worker shovels artificial snow outside Athletes' Village ahead of Beijing 2022 Olympic Games

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

The Most Unsustainable Games Ever?

Carmen de Jong, a professor of geography at the University of Strasbourg, was quoted in the Guardian, saying, "These could be the most unsustainable Winter Olympics ever held. These mountains have virtually no natural snow." Indeed, that's what has much of the world scratching its head. Why choose a place to host snow-based sports that does not get significant natural levels of snow? In this day and age, it's a grossly irresponsible choice by the Olympic selection committee. 

Greenpeace did tell Treehugger it's "not clear what the weather will be like in early February, so we don't know how much they will rely on artificial snow. It's too early to say if they will rely entirely on artificial snow." But the track record isn't promising for that part of China. Yanqing received a mere half-inch of snow last year, while the only other contender for these games—Almaty, Kazakhstan—accumulated an impressive 18 inches (47 cm) last February alone. Almaty was not selected, however, because of its inexperience with hosting a major sporting event.

As Responsible Travel's CEO Justin Francis stated in response to Beijing's reliance on fake snow: "This is the world's showcase of winter sport and it's extraordinary to host it in a place dependent on artificial snow. The Olympics inspires us about sport, but also about doing our bit to sustain the planet. This is the ideal platform and it's the wrong message."

There are more environmental red flags associated with the Olympics than we could ever begin to count, and that's not the point of this article—but it does seem like common sense to select venues whose natural climates reflect the sports they plan to host. 

At a time when we're supposed to be striving to reduce our personal and collective carbon footprints in an effort to keep global warming below 1.5˚C, the Beijing Olympics' efforts to create an entire alpine ski region on the edge of the Gobi Desert seem far more irresponsible and pathetic than impressive or praiseworthy.