How Israeli Snowmakers Are Saving Alpine Skiing

In Longreads

The most famous disappearing glacier in the Alps, if not the world, sits 3,600 feet above the Pitztal, or Pitz valley, itself 30 miles west of Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian state of Tyrol. One measure of the Pitztal Glacier’s decline is that one of the ski lifts built atop it has had to be moved three times in three decades. Another is the giant insulated blanket the resort cloaks over the glacier every summer, hoping to slow the melt. Europe’s Alps have lost half their ice over the last century, one-fifth of it since the 1980s. By 2007 the 925 named glaciers in Austria were receding at an average of 30 feet to 50 feet a year, twice the rate recorded a decade earlier.

What brought international fame to the Pitztal in particular—reports on NBC, articles in National Geographic and USA Today—was less the rate of its melt than the last-ditch absurdity of its glacier blanket. Workers began covering nearly 30 acres at an annual cost of $120,000, preserving five vertical feet of snow per season. The technique spread to Germany’s Zugspitze and Switzerland’s Verbier—and now Russia is using blankets to guarantee snow for the Olympics in subtropical Sochi. In Austria it only partly helped: Covered or not, the Pitztal Glacier has already shrunk so much that it now peters out 700 feet above the lift station. During the all-important shoulder seasons—Pitztal is the highest of the five Austrian resorts used for fall and spring skiing—the last section of the ski run is a pile of jagged boulders.

Some 80 million tourists come to the Alps each ski season. Some 1.2 million Tyroleans, including nearly everyone in the Pitztal, depend on glacier skiing for their livelihoods. But across Europe, across the world, an economy is imperiled. In early 2007 slopes were bare the week before the famed Hahnenkamm World Cup race in Pitztal’s neighboring Kitzbühel, and helicopters had to fly in 160,000 cubic feet of snow at a cost of more than $400,000. That same year, a British investor bought Switzerland’s low-lying Ernen ski area for 1 Swiss franc; resort managers in Whistler, British Columbia, began using computerized global warming simulations to choose the site of their next lift (answer: uphill); Bolivian scientists declared that the country’s lone ski area, 17,388-foot Chacaltaya, would lose its glacier entirely within three years (they’ve been proven right); and the Australian-designed, indoor revolving Ski-Trac was loudly promoted “as the answer to the problem of climate change.” Dome-encased indoor ski areas, including the 700-vertical-foot SnowWorld Landgraaf in low-lying Holland, were officially added to the European race circuit the following winter.

No wonder then that snowmaking has become a billion-dollar industry. Cannons now spray man-made snow on nearly half of Austria’s ski terrain, sucking up roughly 500,000 gallons of water per acre of artificial snow. Snowmakers across the Alps use more water than does Vienna, a city of 1.7 million—as much water per acre, it turns out, as a typical field of wheat. But traditional snowmaking, no matter how much it drains Europe’s ponds and lakes, cannot secure the Alpine economy. It requires perfect conditions—below-freezing temperatures, humidity of less than 70 percent, and minimal winds. At Pitztal, at least, these conditions are rarely present anymore when most needed. Yet there’s hope inside a modernistic, slate-paneled, 50-foot-high cement building near the foot of the glacier.

The facility houses one of the world’s first models of the IDE All Weather Snowmaker, a $2 million device capable of shooting out 35,000 cubic feet of snow in 24 hours at any temperature on any day of the year. Reinhold Streng, a ruddy-faced lift manager, unlocked the door to show me a giant white cylinder, a welter of tubes and pipes, and a row of gray instrument panels lining the back wall. Neither of us could read the labels. They were written in Hebrew.

The machine came from a nation with a history of overcoming the worst, from a corporation—Israel Desalination Enterprises—already making millions off climate change by wringing the salt out of saltwater. Austria, it turns out, was relying on a company in Israel to save the Alps. As the company’s press release had it, “IDE’s All Weather Snowmaker brings under your control what previously could not be controlled!”

Avraham Ophir

How Israelis became snow salesmen was explained to me a week after I left Pitztal by IDE’s technology chief and self-proclaimed “best skier” at his home 30 minutes from Tel Aviv. Avraham Ophir, a white-haired man with a soft voice, was dying of cancer. His two colleagues, Moshe Tessel and Rafi Stoffman, sat with me on a couch and looked at him with a mixture of fondness and awe. He was the institutional knowledge of IDE, a now-iconic Israeli company, and the hero of one of its two gulag creation stories. He sat back in a red leather chair.

“Look, it’s a long story, but I try to make it short,” he said. “I was born in eastern Poland, in a town called Białystok. My father owned the factory that produced turpentine, which comes from the wood of trees in this region. Now, in the beginning of the Second World War, we were first occupied by the Germans for two weeks, and then the Russians came in. My father being a capitalist, he was taken prisoner and sent to a gulag in northern Siberia. And we, as the family of a prisoner, were sent to the south of Siberia, actually northern Kazakhstan.” There Ophir was forced to learn how to ski. “You would take two simple wooden planks that were very strong,” he said, “and you would put a leather strip around it, and with your normal boot you would enter the leather. This is how we would go to school.” Normally an older boy led the students, because of the wolves. When blizzards, known as buran, came, the boys found their way by following telephone poles spaced every 150 feet near their route. They survived the long winters by eating fish caught during summers and cured with salt.

The story of the snowmaker also started in Siberia. In Russia, Ophir said, “there was a Jewish engineer by the name of Alexander Zarchin. This engineer was a Zionist. Being a Zionist and being a technologist, the Soviets sent him to one of the gulags, the same one as my father. And in Siberia it’s very cold, but the summer did not have any rain. The gulag was close to the Arctic Ocean.” The labor camp needed a source of drinking water. So in the summer, Ophir said, “they would open a gate and let seawater enter a lagoon. At the end of summer they would close the gate, and the upper layer of the lagoon would freeze.” When it did, the salt and water were forced apart. “By nature, ice crystals from seawater are pure water,” he explained. When summer came again, the surface began to melt, flushing any residual brine from the ice pack, and Zarchin and the other prisoners began pumping liquid from the saline depths of the lagoon. They measured its salt content as they pumped, and once it was low enough, Ophir said, “they closed the gates and let the sun melt the rest of the ice—and they had drinking water.” He looked at us proudly. “So you see,” he said, mangling a phrase I heard everywhere in Israel, “need is the father of invention.”

After the war, Ophir was allowed to return to Poland, then was smuggled with a group of Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, across the Alps to Italy and eventually to the newly declared state of Israel. Zarchin, his future boss, also fled from the gulags to Israel, where he soon found fame as an inventor. In 1956 the country’s first prime minister, the water-obsessed David Ben-Gurion, gave Zarchin a quarter-million dollars to build a pilot desalination plant. In 1960, Look magazine declared that what was being called the Zarchin process could “have more significance than the atomic bomb.” Zarchin’s trick was to replicate the Siberian freeze using a vacuum chamber: When pressure drops below 4 millibars, chilled saltwater becomes ice and thus loses its salt. His project, eventually incorporated as the for-profit IDE, became a vehicle for capitalism and nationalism. “He wrote down the patent when he saw that the country needed water,” said Ophir. “Most of Israel was a desert at that time, but in the Bible the country was full of trees. You read that the son of David, Absalom, he was running away on a horse, and his hair got caught by the branch of a tree, and this is how he was killed.” Ophir gestured out a window toward his lush garden. “We decided we were going to make this country look like it did before,” he said. “And the people who came from Eastern Europe and other places, they wanted to convert it into something that reminded them of where they had lived before.”

When foreign investors came, a nervous Zarchin covered his machines’ dials with cloths, determined that no one steal their secrets, or his profits. But vacuum desalination was quickly supplanted by more efficient reverse-osmosis techniques, and it took IDE 40 years to find a real use for the Zarchin process. The eureka moment—this one belonging to Ophir—came in South Africa, where an IDE vacuum-ice machine was commissioned to help cool the world’s deepest gold mine, two miles below the surface of the earth, where workers faced 130F temperatures.

It was 2005, Tessel explained. He and Ophir were in South Africa on a site visit, testing the mine’s newest machine. Ophir saw a pile of snow produced in the heat of the African sun, and his eyes lit up. “Moshe, get me some skis,” he commanded. Tessel went into Johannesburg and found some skis. “At lunch he had a big exhibition,” Tessel says. “I told him, ‘Avraham, I’m impressed you are a good skier for your age’ ”—he was 72—“ ‘but before we take it to the Alps, let’s find a specialist.’ I looked for one on the Internet.”

The specialist Tessel found, a Finnish Olympic coach, was flown to South Africa. According to Tessel, he declared the pile “fine snow for ski—not powder, like in Aspen, but it’s what the professionals call spring snow.” IDE then flew a dozen ski area executives to South Africa, Tessel says, “and we built two snow mountains, and we spent two days with the guys, and we ate, we drink, and already after this I get two orders.” Iconic Zermatt, the village below the Matterhorn and the now-melting, shifting Swiss-Italian border, got the first IDE snowmaker. Pitztal got the second.

In 2009-2010, the first full season it deployed its new snowmaker, Pitztal was the earliest ski area in the Northern Hemisphere to open. The date: Sept. 12.

“We managed to sell snow to the Eskimo,” Ophir said.

“Now I want to sell sand to the Bedouins,” said Tessel.

For IDE and the rest of the desalination industry, there was an aspect of the planet’s ice loss that was even more auspicious. In the Alps, no less than in the Himalayas or Rockies or Rwenzoris or Andes, disappearing ice is disappearing water storage. Glaciers are reservoirs. Snowfields are reservoirs. In winter they grow with precipitation, trapping it uphill. In summer, when their water is most needed, it’s slowly released. Shrinking glaciers imperil the water supplies of 77 million people in the tropical Andes, along with the hydropower providing half the electricity in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. In Asia, 2 billion people in five major river basins—the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Yellow—depend on Himalayan meltwater. The range’s glaciers, which irrigate millions of acres of rice and wheat in China, India, and Pakistan, have lost a fifth of their mass in 50 years. In Spain, which is becoming so dry so quickly that some warn of the Sahara jumping across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Pyrenees have lost nearly 90 percent of their glacial cover. A century ago the glaciers feeding such agriculturally important rivers as the Cinca and the Ebro stretched 8,150 acres across the range. They now cover 960 acres. And even in the U.S. millions of people depend on glaciers and winter snowfall: California, kept green by mountain-fed rivers, especially the Colorado, is in the throes of an historic drought, in part because the melt in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada is accelerating.

In a sense, Israelis understood better than anyone what it was like to descend into drought. They knew what to do. Coming from Europe, as Ophir explained, they had faced a changed environment—hotter, drier, and less hospitable than what they had known before—and met it head-on. Zionism had been guided by Enlightenment ideals: faith in reason, faith in capitalism, faith that any problem had a rational solution if man was rational enough to find it. The first Israelis did not bow before nature. The Enlightenment answer to water scarcity, then as now, was to seek the silver bullet—an engineered solution, a supply-side solution.

Because of climate change, we’re all becoming Israelis now. In Peru in 2009, a scientist won a World Bank award for his proposal to paint the Andes white and repel the sun’s lethal heat. In India’s Ladakh region, a retired engineer built a $50,000 artificial glacier in the shadow of the Himalayas, collecting runoff in rock-lined ponds that would freeze and attach to an existing glacier in winter. In Spain, Barcelona became the first city in mainland Europe to resort to emergency water imports: 5 million gallons transported in 2008 in a converted oil tanker. In China, the central government prepared to divert rivers at a scale the world had never seen: The $65 billion, three-canal, 1,812-combined-mile South-North Water Transfer Project will someday move 4.5 trillion gallons each year from the Tibetan Plateau, home to nearly 40,000 melting glaciers, to the cities in the country’s arid, industrializing north.


Today, IDE is responsible for 400 of the world’s desalination plants, including what was until recently the biggest, most efficient, and most celebrated: the 86 million-gallons-per-day (mgd) plant in Ashkelon, Israel, next to the Gaza Strip at the edge of the Negev. After Ashkelon, IDE won contracts to build the largest plant in China, a $119 million job; a 43 mgd plant in desiccating Australia, a $145 million project; and a giant 109 mgd plant north of Tel Aviv in Hadera, costing $495 million. IDE is also part of the consortium building two contentious 50 mgd plants in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach, Calif. An engineer at the company leading the construction, Poseidon Resources, told me that in theory it could create water with the exact mineral content and taste of San Pellegrino. “People will drink Pellegrino out of the tap,” he said, “and they’ll take showers in Pellegrino.”

By 2009, Ashkelon met almost 6 percent of Israel’s total water demand, a first step in the country’s plan to get a quarter of its water from the sea by 2020. After subsidies, its price per cubic meter is 60¢—on par with tap water costs in the U.S., far cheaper than in parts of Europe. Once bought by the government, nationalized, and dumped into the pipes and canals of the National Water Carrier, its water is indistinguishable from the rest. But there’s a problem: Desalination plants, even Ashkelon, use vast amounts of power. Power plants—whether nuclear, coal, gas, or hydroelectric—use vast amounts of water for cooling. If they’re fueled by coal or, to a lesser degree, natural gas, they also emit vast amounts of carbon. Carbon furthers warming, warming furthers drought, and desalination begins to resemble a snake eating its own tail.

If a glass of water is 8 ounces, a glass of water from Ashkelon takes roughly 10,000 joules of energy. The plant runs on natural gas, making it cleaner than most, but that glass of water still translates to 0.0011 pounds of CO2 emissions. If the average Israeli were to take all of his or her water from Ashkelon, it would cause 0.6 metric tons of annual emissions—about half of what each person on the planet can emit if we’re to someday halt warming. (Israelis currently emit about 9.3 metric tons per person, Americans 17.6 metric tons each—both well over that limit.) In California, there are new plans to reduce the footprint of the Carlsbad desalination plant. But as designed, it will emit an estimated 61,000 metric tons of carbon a year—more than several island nations. But no one claims desalination can save the world. Nor can any snowmaker save all the world’s glaciers. They can only save the rich parts from the fate befalling the rest.

In Austria’s Pitz valley, the glacier opened right on time this season. “All the hotels would be closed without glacier skiing,” says Marcus Herovitsch, the resort’s marketing manager. For lower ski areas, winter has yet to really begin. “It looks a bit bizarre,” Herovitsch says. “There’s a white band of snow up high—but left and right, there’s nothing but green.”

First published in Businessweek and Excerpted from the book Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, by McKenzie Funk. Copyright © 2014 by McKenzie Funk. Reprinted with author’s permission; all rights reserved.


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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.