That ain’t snow, Mike. That’s angel hair. We done died and gone to heaven .
Here in the South, you can dream all you want to of a “White Christmas”—or of winning the lottery, for that matter—but either way, chances are it’s not going to happen. This year in particular, kiddies dashing to the window Christmas morning, jet-propelled by visions of the backyard equivalent of a powdered donut, are in for their first dose of cruel holiday reality: At press time, the National Weather Service’s extended local forecast for Dec. 25 already reads “partly cloudy, with a high near 44.” Upon inquiry, even the magic eight-ball on my desk predicts, through a haze of murky blue liquid, “outlook not favorable.”
Not to despair. In the face of less-than-desirable annual snowfalls, we improvise. We find ways to compensate, compromise. We wrestle with the analogy, what margarine is to butter, _____ is to snow , and we find solutions that are precisely, almost poetically, not at all what Mother Nature intended. From snow machines to snow-in-a-can, Styrofoam snow to snow made from space-age polymers, fake snow has all the cache of the real deal but none of its fickle unpredictability. It is, some say, the snow of the future.
There are, of course, as many types of fake snow as there are uses for it. Some of them you can buy at the store, some are available only online or through late-night infomercials, and others hover beyond the average person’s financial grasp.
Consider, for instance, commercial snow machines—those cannon-like contraptions that spit great billows of fake snow into the air above ski slopes. Wayne Hoilman, general manager of North Carolina ski resort Beech Mountain, says it takes 125 of them to keep Beech’s 15 slopes white between December and March each year and notes that operating them isn’t cheap.
“Snowmaking is a real expensive undertaking,” he explains. “It costs about $500 an hour to make snow just for the electricity. We average about 1,000 hours a year of snowmaking.”
The machines get fired up whenever the temperature drops low enough for the snow to stay frozen. “It’s like farming,” Hoilman says. “You make hay when the sun shines, and you make snow when it’s cold.” Over the course of a season, they convert 85 million gallons of water into snow.
“We have a natural snowfall of 80 inches per year, but that’s only three or four inches at a time,” Hoilman says. “Without manmade snow, we probably wouldn’t ski more than three days a year.”
Ober Gatlinburg gets even less natural snow—about 35 inches, according to Ober’s Director of Marketing Kathy Doyle. “But we’re not always that lucky,” she says, pointing out this December’s freakish warm-weather streak.
Right now though, thanks to the resort’s 75 snow machines, there’s not a bare patch of slope on the premises. “It’s incredible,” Doyle says. “It’s wild to see this big bank of snow.”
Scientifically speaking, of course, fake snow isn’t quite the same thing as real snow, although the process through which it is made mimics how snow is formed in nature. Essentially, water is mixed with a nucleating agent similar to the natural particles around which real snowflakes form, and a high-pressure pump is used to spray the water into the air as a mist. When the atmospheric water hits the cold air, it theoretically freezes into tiny snow-like ice particles. The process isn’t perfect, however. If you had a clump of the real stuff in one hand and a clump of manmade snow in the other, the latter would be heavier, denser and wetter—which, coupled with the accelerated melting/refreezing cycle of our southern climate, accounts for fake snow’s reputation for creating dangerous ice patches on ski slopes.
Is it possible to defy, if not replicate, nature? Snow-machine technology continues to evolve, but some snow scientists have turned their attention to a new snow-making paradigm altogether. About 15 years ago, the Japanese developed a polymer-based artificial snow to be used in indoor snowboarding parks. Today, the jury’s still out on the experiment’s success; of the nine such Japanese snowboard parks that were built to utilize the polymer snow, all have lost money due to the expense of keeping the parks cold enough to keep the snow “frozen”—a constant 27 degrees.
“It looks exactly like real snow,” says Richard Bayer, a businessman in Santa Cruz, Calif., who was the first American to begin commercially importing the substance in 2001. “It’s a dry powder that absorbs 50 to 100 times its volume in water. Because it’s 99-percent water, it behaves a lot like snow. At freezing, you can sculpt it; in a 90 degree room, it doesn’t melt—it just gets softer.”
The product, which Bayer markets under the brand-name SnoWonder, even feels cool to cold to the touch, since water tends to adopt the temperature of the air around it. With a daily spray of water, it doesn’t evaporate; Bayer says he’s seen it stay “frozen” for up to two whole years. And though it might look different than real snow under a microscope, shaped more like a smooth oval than a traditional snowflake, it looks and feels like real snow to the touch.
“People love it,” Bayer says. His buyers vary, ranging from individuals who purchase small packages for household manger scenes to a Las Vegas casino that recently purchased an 800-pound supply—enough to make 8,000 to 10,000 gallons of snow. It’s been used for movie sets, and has since been imitated by a number of other brand-names, including Insta-Snow, which currently has a kiosk campaign in malls nationwide.
Bayer isn’t the first entrepreneur to have capitalized on America’s snow shortages.
“It’s just not the same without snow on Christmas,” says Gregg Blanchard, a Logan, Utah-based businessman who began custom-building home snowmaking systems about five years ago. Today, his business, Second Nature Snowmaking, is booming—“and getting more and more popular every year,” he adds. From his website, www.snow-maker.com , he sells home snowmakers that cover up to a 25-square-foot area with an inch of snow in just one hour. The machines work similarly to the snow guns used on ski slopes, but on a miniature scale. The only requirements: a pressure washer, an air compressor, and below-freezing air. Second Nature’s most modest model can be had for about $140.
“The main reason I see people wanting them is to make snow for a White Christmas or for kids’ Christmas parties,” Blanchard says. “It’s a big surprise for kids to wake up on Christmas morning to a backyard full of snow.”
The downside when it comes to such inventions, of course, is that what freezes must also melt—which can be hugely inconvenient if you’re in the market for indoor-use snow.
For the solution, we turn to East Tennessee’s largest consumer of indoor snow, Dollywood. The Pigeon Forge theme park’s holiday season, A Smoky Mountain Christmas, boasts several Christmas shows whose scripts require falling snow, says Dollywood Public Relations Manager Pete Owens.
“We’ve done the fake plastic snow that looks like snow and is shaken out of theatrical snowmakers,” he says. “But we primarily use theatrical snow, a foam-based product that is generated from snow machines, similar to a fog machine. It looks like snow in a theatrical setting.”
Not to take the magic out of your favorite Dollywood Christmas show or anything, but Owens is probably talking about a product like Evaporative Snow, whose simulated snowflakes disappear within 90 seconds of creation.
While the evaporating stuff certainly sounds lower-maintenance than a mess of tiny plastic shreds, for some Christmas events, standbys will be standbys. East Tennessee Children’s Hospital’s annual Fantasy of Trees, a Christmas-tree decorating extravaganza held each November at the Convention Center, has its time-honored own fake-snow system.
Seth Linkus, the festival’s associate director of public relations, says the snowy setup starts with 45 to 50 huge rolls of cotton batting. “Each one is 75 yards long by eight feet wide,” he explains. “On top of that we put about 100 pounds of flake snow, topped with 100 pounds of opalescent snow.” When all is said and done, the snow-beds resemble subtly glowing clouds—an effect that, with the right supplies, Fantasy-goers can replicate at home.
Karen Huskey, an employee at Pigeon Forge’s holiday warehouse The Incredible Christmas Place, says that fake snow is a big seller year-round. “Absolutely. We have customers all throughout the year, even in the summer, although it only really starts getting packed in October,” she explains.
Christmas Place’s fake-snow selection is par-none to any other in the area. “We’ve got two different styles of blanket snow, which are always popular. One comes with crystals in it to enhance the glow and make it more realistic, and the other is just plain blanket snow. Both are flame-resistant. And then there’s Frosty’s Helper snow, which comes in pieces, plastic curls, you can scatter like real snow, and then we carry Insta-Snow….”
As Huskey prattles off the store’s inventory of fake snow, in all its myriad and complicated variations, it’s hard not to marvel at the phenomenon of the real deal—unpredictable and unruly as it may be. No matter how hard we try to copy Mother Nature, no matter how far man’s technologies have advanced and many sheep we’ve been able to clone, we still haven’t been able to exactly replicate the perfection of a single, tiny snowflake. We come close, but there’s always an infinitesimal something , an elusive missing ingredient, that we can’t quite get right.
Maybe it’s magic.