Man-Made Snow vs. Natural Snow

Published by Harry Sowers on

Long ago, when skiing was first invented, skiers of all ages and locations had to wait for the winter and early spring to ski. There was no other way to practice skiing. Unless a skier has the money to travel to parts of the world that had snow, all they could do was wait. But technology and innovation removed this problem from the lives of skiers and snowboarders around the world. Man-made snow came out on the winter sports scene sometime in the early 1950s. These massive and small snow cannons have become a staple in artificial snow rooms and actual nature since then. But, should these machines be used. Isn’t it better for snowboarders and skiers to avoid natural areas that make snow and only travel to places that have natural snow? Or is it all the same? That’s what we’re going to find out in this article. 

When did snowmaking start?

Like many wonderful techniques and technologies that we have today, snowmaking started in the movie business. Filmmakers could not wait until the wintertime to make movies with heavy amounts of snow, so early special effects departments created their own snow. A pressurized water compressing machine was invented, and since then, artificial snow has been available worldwide. The first snow machines created snow by compressing water and ice into a chamber and shredding it up, then blowing it out of a pipe. This machine helped create snow in areas that wanted or needed more snow than what was available. As time went on, wealthy investors saw the potential for indoor skiing and decided to create entire buildings dedicated to winter sports. Not only that, ski resorts used snow machines to cover areas that didn’t have much snow so they can continue to attract skiers in the early fall and late spring.

What Is Man-Made Snow

Nowadays, there are many different types of fake/man-made snow. So if you have ever wondered, “what’s fake snow made of?” You should know that the answer is long and boring. I could write a 10-page report on the different ingredients used to make certain snow types, but I won’t bore you with that unnecessary info. For this article, I shall only focus on how snow is created with water and only water. This is the type of snow used in indoor skiing areas, and it is also how fake snow is made at skiing resorts and popular winter sports spots.

So let’s learn how is man-made snow made!

How do fake snow machines work? It is quite simple. When you use an artificial snow machine, it forces water through a pressurized chamber, which then lowers the temperature of the water and causes it to freeze. There are massive snow machines that spray man-made snow. But not all snow machines are made the same. Some machines are made to spread that snow that they make over a wide area. And these snow machines are also called artificial snow cannons. These cannons work like other snow machines. The only true difference is that the cannon shoots the artificial snow in the air. Cannons are a great tool to spread snow around an artificial slope or a real mountain top.

man made snow cannon

These cannons are hooked up to a water source to create as much snow is needed to generously coat the ground.

But cannons cannot spread the artificial snow everywhere, and it will begin to pile up around the snow cannon. When the snow begins to build and pile up, the resort or the local ranger station will hire groomers to push the snow to areas that need it. It is much easier to move the snow to these areas than to move the actual snow cannon. The snow cannon needs to be hooked up to electricity, so if there are no electrical hookups in the area that can support an industrial machine, the snow cannon cannot work there.

Even areas with a lot of natural snow will use an artificial snow machine or an artificial snow cannon to create more snow. They will simply carry the snow to sections that are lacking snow. Another reason why places that already have a lot of snow use snow cannons to create more snow is to prevent the snow that is already on the ground from melting. Weather and temperature fluctuate greatly, and there may be some days where a heavy snow area can experience higher temperatures. If the temperatures are high enough, the snow can start to melt. Melting snow is bad for business. When this occurs, snow cannons are brought out after the temperatures ever turn back to normal. They have then used to coat the melted snow in a layer of snow, which helps the snow to freeze again and prevents snow loss.

Does artificial snow melt?

The ability for artificial snow to melt depends on the ingredients used to make the snow. Some types of snow don’t melt at all; it just evaporates into thin air. Since snow cannons use regular water, that does mean the artificial snow can melt. But it melts in a slightly different way than natural snow does. One thing you should know about artificial snow is that it is much wetter than natural snow, which must fall through the air and leave some of its moisture behind. So when artificial snow melts, it releases more water than natural snow. 

How Is Natural Snow Made?

Now we all know that snow is rain or water vapor frozen by the winter’s cold temperatures, but how exactly is it made? First, there must be moisture in the atmosphere and the environment. But it doesn’t have to be moisture in the area where the snow will fall. The moisture can be from anywhere. The heat will cause moisture to rise high in altitude, which will cool the warm moist air and form clouds. As the cloud continues to rise higher and higher in altitude, the water vapor that forms the clouds then turns back into water droplets. So when this cloud full of water droplets passes over an area where the temperature is now below freezing, it will then form snow and fall from the cloud.

Differences between man-made snow and natural snow

Man-made Snow

When it comes to skiing on man-made snow, most skiers cannot tell if they are skiing on this type of snow. Man-made snow is wetter.

During competitions and the Olympics, snow and snow cannons are greatly favored. It would be too difficult to rely just on the weather and potential snowfall during an International competition.

Natural snow

natural snow

Because there are several natural processes that must happen to create natural snow, it is far more fluffy and light than man-made snow. But it does not last like that for long. As it falls into the ground and the weight of the cumulative snow compresses together, it becomes hard and dense. If you were to place natural snow and man-made snow underneath the microscope, you would see that the natural snow is very complex and has many different structures while the man-made snow was simplistic and clumpy.

But one type of skier will not be satisfied with man-made snow, and that is the powder skiers. Natural snow is very light and flies in the air easier when a skier carves into the snow. Man-made snow does not do this. It is far too dense and heavy.

When a snowboarder or a skier or someone who is hiking through the snow, how do you tell the difference between man-made snow and natural snow? Nine out of 10 times, they are unable to. Snow machines were created to manufacture the exact same texture and style that natural snow consists of. Many people cannot tell that the snow is man-made if there were not any snow machines around.


So now that you know how artificial snow is made, I hope I did not ruin the magic of winter for you. You may have suspected that snow machines only existed in indoor skiing areas, but most people have no idea that places that already receive snow use them as well. Snow machines are important because the weather is unpredictable, and sometimes there isn’t enough snow in mountainous areas. Or the rate at which snow falls in an area could be erratic. Ski resorts and winter vacation spots depend on heavy snow to keep their visitors happy and spending money. If word gets out that certain winter vacation spots are suffering from a lack of snow, there goes the entire local economy. But the snow machines that are used outside don’t contain any terrible chemicals that are harmful to the environment. They simply compress and pressurize water, so it freezes and then blows the snow over the area. So the next time you see snow cannons spraying man-made snow over a forest or a mountain, be glad that we have the technology to sustain these areas that depend on tourism.

Categories: SkiSnowboard


Harry Sowers

Harry grew up outside of Denver Colorado and has been skiing and snowboarding since he was 3. He is most passionate about skiing and when he was in college at UC Boulder he even participated in the olympic trials for the USA Olympic Downhill Ski team.