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Snow Business in US: Skiing Into the World of Winter Wonderlands

Skiing, snowboarding and mountain resorts add up to billions of dollars. Why an industry that can make its own snow is still concerned about climate change. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.


And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we look at the business of skiing and snowboarding in the United States.



Snow sports are a big business. Ski areas help support local economies. One hundred sixty-five thousand people work in the mountain resort industry. It earns five billion dollars a year.

The president of the National Ski Areas Association provided these numbers to a Senate committee last May. Michael Berry wanted lawmakers in Congress to know that his members are concerned about an issue: global warming.

Snow sports, after all, are not just a business, but a business that depends on the weather.


The ski season in the United States generally extends from late November until the middle of April. But this season, areas in the West have experienced record amounts of snowfall. Some ski resorts are planning to stay open longer.

Last season, thirty-seven of the fifty states had operating ski areas. Nationally, close to five hundred ski areas were open for business. The five states with the most ski areas were New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, California and Pennsylvania.

The industry recorded more than fifty-five million visits. That was close to the average for the past ten seasons, but down six percent from the season before. The National Ski Areas Association says the main reason was the weather.


The ski season was shortened in most of the United States because of warm temperatures and below-average snowfall. This was true everywhere except the Rocky Mountains, in the West. Resorts there reported a record twenty million visits last season. The Rocky Mountains extend through several states including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.

The largest ski resort in the United States is Vail, Colorado. The town of Vail and the nearby Vail Mountain make up the resort. The mountain is more than three thousand five hundred meters high.

A ski trip does not have to cost thousands of dollars. Many people go for a day or two and rent skis instead of buying them. But people with enough money to stay at a nice resort might also have enough for some special things. Like riding to the top of the mountain in a helicopter instead of on a ski lift.

And ski areas do not have to be outdoors or open only in winter. The first indoor ski dome in the United States is expected to open late this year in New Jersey.


The United States has three hundred million people. The National Sporting Goods Association says more than six million of them participate in downhill skiing. Two million are cross-country skiers. And more than five million snowboard.

Snowboarding gained popularity in the nineteen sixties and seventies. By the early eighties, less than ten percent of ski areas in the United States permitted snowboarding. Many skiers considered it a danger. But today only a few places still ban snowboarding.


Snowboarders are generally younger than skiers.

Alex Lebonitte is twenty-four years old and a personal trainer in Virginia. He finds that snowboarding is not that much more fun than skiing. He feels the speed more on a snowboard than on two skis, and he likes that.

But what he especially likes is that snowboarding is more comfortable than skiing, he says. The boots are softer, not as much equipment is needed -- and, he says, everything stays attached when you fall.



When a mountain has a lot of snow, there may be danger of an avalanche. Snow slides are powerful, and they can be deadly, burying anything in their path. To reduce the risk of an avalanche, ski areas might use artillery and other explosives to produce controlled slides.

Ski areas need a lot of snow. But what happens when there is not enough? In that case, they make their own.

Snow making machines are the reason many ski resorts can stay open more than a few months a year. These machines also make it possible to create better ski conditions than nature may provide.


Ski operators point out that their snow is really no different from the snow that falls from the sky.

Snow crystals are ice particles that usually form around a piece of dust in the atmosphere. All snow crystals have six sides, but they form different shapes. The shape depends mainly on the temperature and water levels in the air. Snow crystals produce snowflakes when they stick together.

Making snow requires water, cold temperatures and some dust particles. A machine called a snow gun mixes cooled water and compressed air. A pipe carries water into the gun from a lake or pond.

A second pipe pushes in high-pressure air from a compressor. The compressed air causes the water to divide into many tiny particles. It also blows the drops into the air and helps cool them at the same time.

The drops freeze before they hit the ground, producing snow. Some ski areas place the snow guns on towers high above the ground, giving the particles more time to freeze.


But there is more to making snow than just the equipment. Weather conditions must be correct. These conditions involve air temperature and humidity, the amount of water in the air. The drier the air, the easier it is to make snow.

Today many ski areas use computers to measure the conditions and start the snow making when the conditions are best. And ski areas want snow making machines to produce different kinds of snow, just like nature.

Dry snow contains only a small amount of water. This light, powdery snow is excellent for skiing. Ski resorts want the top layer of snow on a mountain to be dry. Under the dry snow, they want wet snow, to build up the levels for skiers.


Environmental groups are concerned about the use of large amounts of energy and water to make snow at ski areas. Many ski operators in the United States are trying to improve the situation with machines that need less energy and water. The Killington ski resort in the northeastern state of Vermont recently invested more than five million dollars to improve its snowmaking system.

Other resorts have reduced the amount of compressed air their machines use; producing it takes energy. Some resorts are using snow guns that can make snow without the need for any compressed air.


Another ski area in the Northeast, the Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Massachusetts, has built a wind turbine to produce energy. The turbine began operating in August of two thousand seven. Jiminy Peak says it is the only mountain resort in North America to produce its own power using wind energy.

Katie Fogel is the director of public relations. She says the wind turbine is producing fifty percent of the resort's energy needs, and thirty-five to forty percent of the energy needed to produce snow.



Snow making equipment is not the only technology found at ski areas. Skiers can use global positioning satellites to avoid getting lost. And, if there is wireless service, they can use their mobile phones to warn others of dangerous conditions, or to call for help.

Another modern safety device is the avalanche beacon. Avalanche beacons are devices that send out a signal to help in locating people buried under snow. There are also personal locator beacons which transmit an emergency signal to satellites.

Ski areas usually have programs to teach safety. Many have also increased their number of employees to supervise visitors. The National Ski Areas Association says accidents generally involve young men traveling at high speed.

An average of thirty-seven people a year have been killed skiing or snowboarding during the past ten years. The association reports that last season there were twenty-two deaths, most of them skiers. Forty other people were seriously injured; forty percent of them were snowboarders.


Amy Kemp is communications manager for Vail Resorts in Colorado. She says one of the most important technological improvements in skiing in the past ten years is the ski itself.

She says the changes in design and shape have made skiing easier, safer and more fun. For example, skis that turn up at both ends, instead of just the front, make it easier to do tricks.

And skiers do not have to work as hard as they used to, she says. Now they can change direction without any more effort than moving an ankle.



Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and Jerilyn Watson, and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Bob Doughty.


And I'm Barbara Klein. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.