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No storms, no problem

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunAlpine Meadows turned on the snow guns at 9 p.m. Tuesday in anticipation of a cold night. The resort's snowmaking crew was out in force at dawn Wednesday
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The forecast may predict sunny skies for Truckee-Tahoe over the weekend, but local ski resorts have other plans in mind ” like creating their own entirely separate weather patterns.

As the sun’s first rays broke the cloudless sky Wednesday morning across the Tahoe Basin, a man-made snowstorm was howling across the base of Alpine Meadows ski resort. Alpine’s snow guns spit out more than 1.2 million gallons of water starting Tuesday night and continuing well into Wednesday morning, blanketing the frozen ground in range of the machines with more than a foot of snow.

“This was probably the first good night we’ve had of snow-making,” said Scott Swietanski, Alpine’s director of mountain operations Wednesday morning. “And it’s looking to be good all week, so we’re looking for a weekend opening.”



The hissing roar of Alpine’s machines join a chorus of snow-making guns at ski resorts throughout the region this week. To make up for Mother Nature’s delayed snowstorms, ski resorts are relying on man-made weather to jump start the season.

“I don’t think there’s any natural snow left on the ground,” said Kirstin Cattell, spokesperson for Northstar-At-Tahoe.



Northstar, Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl are all scheduled to open this weekend.

Alpine plans to open as soon as possible, with an opening date also aimed for this weekend. But the resort won’t run any lifts until its snowpack is at least two-feet deep, said Swietanski.

“We’re on a day-to-day [policy],” he said. “We will open any day that we get enough snow to open. Period.”

Boreal opened briefly earlier this month, but then closed last weekend due to a lack of snow. The resort fired up Gunnar’s Chair for a second opening on Wednesday.

“Our number one goal is to get skiers and boarders on the snow as quickly as possible,” said Jon Slaughter, Boreal’s marketing manager in a release. “We’re taking advantage of this cold front to blow snow so we can get people riding this Thanksgiving.”

Air temperature and humidity go hand-in-hand to create ideal snowmaking conditions, Swietanski said. This week’s brisk temperatures and dry air are providing ski resorts with the best opportunity to efficiently fire up their equipment that they’ve been given so far this season.

Alpine’s snow guns, which vary between the standard model and a more energy-efficient version, were creating a blizzard on two of the resort’s beginner-intermediate lifts Wednesday morning. Once the coverage is adequate around the mountain base, the snow-making crews will attack mid-mountain runs and then the steeper, top-mountain areas, Swietanski said.

The jet of moisture, shot out from the machine’s nozzle, forms snow crystals when the water particles collide and freeze together in the cold air ” a process known as nucleation.

The colder the air, the larger the snow crystals, Swietanski said. In warmer temperatures, the guns are pointed at a steep upward angle, which leaves more time for the colliding water particles to crystallize.

When the moisture freezes, the snow gun’s jet of water seems to stall in mid-air, forming billowing waves of snow that disperse in the wind and float to the ground.

When the process is finished, snow-makers leave behind large firmly-packed mounds, or “whales,” of light snow ” the base for this season’s snowpack. If nature’s storms cover this man-made foundation, this month’s work will last until June, or possibly longer, said Swietanski.

Warmer temperatures reached during the height of the day shouldn’t melt the new snow. The day’s warmth will only stop snowmaking efforts.

“It’ll just cause us to shut down, and that’s a bummer because when we blow [snow] for 24 hours [a day], that’s when we kick butt,” Swietanski said.


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