The Winter Olympics have long been aided by fake snow. As Quartz reports, it began with the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, as officials turned to snowmaking machines to pump out the white stuff in the midst of a dry winter. Over the years, amid warming global temperatures, officials have come to increasingly rely on artificial snow, spewed out in tiny balls. Some 80% of the snow on the slopes in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Olympics was fake. Four years later in PyeongChang, South Korea, the figure was 90%. And this month at the Beijing Olympics, every single inch of snow under ski or snowboard will be artificial.
The city of Zhangjiakou, 100 miles northwest of Beijing, which will host freestyle skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, ski jumping, and cross-country skiing events, is certainly cold—as is Yanqing, 50 miles northwest of Beijing, which is home to the Alpine skiing venue. But the water-stressed region is dry, receiving only a dusting of snow each winter. China's Olympic bid noted it would need an army of snow machines and 49 million gallons of water to get the slopes ready. However, it may use quite a bit more water, as much as 528 million gallons, per Bloomberg. "Covering an area of 200 feet by 200 feet with six inches of snow requires more than 74,600 gallons of water," reports the Washington Post.
Some 1.2 million cubic meters of snow were reportedly needed in Yanqing, where streaks of white decorate an otherwise snowless mountain. Sports Illustrated reports 170 fan-powered snow guns and 30 fanless snow lances "work around the clock" there. In the future, this may be the norm. A 2018 study found only eight of the 21 cities that had previously hosted the Winter Olympics would be cold enough to do so by 2100. Snowmaking can create extra challenges on the slopes, notes Quartz. Daniel Scott of the University of Waterloo, author of the 2018 study, referred to a "number of cancelled practices and complaints from athletes about inconsistent and unsafe conditions" in Sochi. (Read more 2022 Beijing Olympics stories.)