Climate change: athletes point out dangers of artificial snow


Another American, training before a biathlon race, slips into an icy corner and flies off the track into a tree, breaking his ribs and a shoulder blade and puncturing a lung.

These were not scenes of alpine skiing or high speed ski cross. They took place on cross-country ski and biathlon trails in artificial snow.

Many top Nordic skiers and biathletes claim that such accidents are becoming more common as climate change reduces the availability of natural snow, forcing runners to compete on pistes with the artificial version. Organizers of Olympic and World Cup races have come to rely on snowmaking equipment to create a white ribbon across the hills, as natural snowfall is less reliable.

Johanna Taliharm, an Estonian Olympic biathlete, said running on artificial snow comes with risks.

“Artificial snow is freezing cold, therefore faster and more dangerous,” she said. “It also hurts more if you fall off the course when there is no fluffy snowbank but hard rocky muddy ground.”

Artificial snow has a higher moisture content, which causes it to freeze quickly, say skiers and experts.

“It can be really hard there and falling can feel like you are hitting concrete, so it makes the situation a little more dangerous than if it was natural snow,” said Chris Grover, coach. in chief of US Ski. Team.

Some sites even make snow, then store it under wood chips during the summer and spread it around a trail when it’s cold. Artificial snow, as welcome as it is, does not improve with age. Race organizers should take this into account when designing courses, say skiers and experts.

“It’s pretty universally accepted that the courses are firmer and faster than ever before,” said Gus Schumacher, member of the US cross country team. During races in France, “there were a few accidents where people slipped on icy corners because the snow is super merciless. Like, these are really sharp crystals that don’t bond together very well.

John Aalberg, a former Olympic cross-country skier who designs Olympic Nordic ski courses, including for the Beijing Games, said they always consider icy conditions when designing a course. He said a bigger safety issue was the change in race format from individual starts to mass start races.

“When you ski one by one like they did in the ’90s, you might have gnarier descents and turns because they were coming one at a time,” he said. “What is important in terms of safety is that the downhill turns are not too tight in terms of width.”

Unlike alpine equipment, cross-country skis do not have metal edges. They are designed to be thin and light for climbing hills and sliding over flat terrain. The boots are flexible and connect to the ski with a single metal bar under the toe. Nordic skiers do not use the ski edge to navigate a turn. Instead, they take quick action to get around the curve.

All of this is more difficult on artificial snow.

“We’re going really fast on the downhills,” said Olympic gold medalist and US Nordic ski team member Jessie Diggins. “I hit 76 kilometers per hour (47 mph) going downhill on artificial snow and it’s scary because most of our race tracks are designed for natural snow, which is a bit softer. You have a little more padding on the side of the trail where you have snow banks, not just drop offs.

“I think it gets a little more dangerous and I noticed that at the World Cup when it’s artificial snow it’s scary because instead of sliding on snow you are sliding on ice, ”added Diggins, who was the World Cup winner for the 2020-21 season. “I think we are seeing a higher percentage of falls. I think it’s a little more dangerous now.

The International Ski Federation, which oversees ski racing around the world, has been keeping track of injuries since 2006. The FIS Surveillance System was created to “monitor injury patterns and trends in the various FIS disciplines” and to “provide baseline data for in-depth studies of the causes of injury.”

The reports cover alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and ski jumping. But there is no injury data in Nordic events, which includes cross-country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined.

When the Associated Press asked if the organization keeps track of accidents in cross-country ski and biathlon races, an FIS spokesperson said: “We track injuries during our races, but we don’t report back. not our public research at this time. “

When asked about concerns about artificial snow, FIS did not respond. Martti Jylha, Finnish cross-country skier and co-chair of the FIS Council Athletes’ Commission, did not respond to the messages.

There are other factors at play.

John Morton, two-time Olympic biathlete, FIS certified course inspector and founder of Morton Trails, a Vermont company that designs ski trails, said there are international standards for Nordic ski racing. He remembers attending a conference where they discussed bank turns on fast descents, but some EU officials were reluctant to say that would make things too easy.

“There’s this constant drive to make it more exciting and more dramatic,” he said. “It’s very clear that they want challenging courses, they want to push athletes to their limits.”

In this context, he said, considerations must be taken into account.

“We have to recognize that the way they were designed, maintained and built for natural snow may need to be changed now because everything is faster – the skis are faster, the waxing is faster,” he said. .

Artificial snow “isn’t really snow at all,” said Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah. “What it is is water that is blown through nozzles which break the water into extremely small and tiny droplets which then freeze. While the structure of natural snow is fundamentally different. “

Artificial snow has a higher water content, so it has a high density and tends to be very durable, which makes it ideal for ski racing, at least for downhill skiing, he said.

“For alpine skiing events, natural snow can actually be an obstacle as runners prefer a hard, icy surface,” he said. “If a storm hits before an alpine ski event, the natural snow is usually removed from the course. Nordic skiing is different, however. “

British skier Andrew Young was on the fourth lap of a 15-kilometer mass-start cross-country ski race in Sweden in January when he crashed on the descent and went through a fence, breaking his leg. He was rushed to hospital and went through six weeks of recovery, which ended his hopes for the 2021 World Championships.

Young said climate change has “definitely changed” cross-country skiing, but that’s not the only reason the sport is more dangerous.

Racetracks are shorter partly because of the limited snowfall, but also to bring skiers through the arena more often for spectators and TV cameras. As Young put it, “Shorter loops mean more turns, which means more crashes.”

According to Luke Bodensteiner, general manager of the center, the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah had about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) of trails to run during the 2002 Winter Olympics. But the shorter loops used for races these days mean they only need 11 or 12 kilometers (6.8 or 7.4 miles) for the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games.

They like to keep the tracks about 1 meter (3.2 feet) deep to make sure the tracks hold up, he said. But that means a longer fall when a skier leaves the course.

“The problem I see is when there’s absolutely no natural snow and just a sliver of artificial snow for a running course,” Young said. “If something were to happen and someone crashes, the consequences of going off the track actually become quite serious. “


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