Flurries of activity in Buffalo's high-tech research labs have found a way to increase this city's supply of one of its most famous commodities -- snow.
In a scientific breakthrough not likely to please the Chamber of Commerce, a leading aerospace researcher here has found a way to make large quantities of snow quickly and cheaply, at temperatures up to 38 degrees.
The news may leave most of us cold -- but to skiers and especially to the owners of ski resorts, the lining in these man-made clouds is definitely silver.
"The object was to make a more efficient snowmaking gun," said Dr. Michael Holden, a British-born scientist at Calspan. "But it was also to make a gun that could make snow before Christmas, period."
Kissing Bridge, one of a handful of ski resorts across the country that financed Holden's 10-year research project, has begun testing the new lightweight artificial snow-maker that could extend ski seasons and save resorts thousands of dollars in energy costs. Resort President Mark F. Halter is optimistic.
"We bought 10, because we thought that would give us a good evaluation," he said. "We wanted to try them for a year. If they do what we think they will, we'd certainly buy a lot more."
The new technology, known as "Dendrite" guns for the term applied to branching ice crystals, makes heavier, better snow for skiing.
In an offshoot, the new Dendrite gun and two standard models were left running on a ski slope overnight. By 8 a.m., the snow was piled three feet deep in front of the standard guns; in front of Holden's Dendrite model, the drift was 12 feet deep.
"It was awesome," industrial designer Dorwin Teague told reporters for national ski industry journals.
The idea was born about a decade ago, when Holden -- a ski instructor who has leavened his work on fluid dynamics and aerospace engineering with doses of wind tunnel testing and theory for the U.S. ski, bobsled and luge teams -- was watching the snow-making equipment in action at KB.
The guns were pumping their guts out, to make a modicum of snow. And some of that was simply drifting away.
The concept went from there to the national level, and eventually led to a 1980 meeting in Buffalo that marked the start of a consortium of 24 national ski resorts to bankroll a $140,000 research project.
The stakes were high. Ski resorts can spend up to a quarter of their annual budgets or more on artificial snow, and the making of snow consumes vast quantities of water and energy.
Holden said he and his Calspan associate, engineer George Duryea, "spent the first three years figuring out what other people were doing and how they were doing it, and basically came up with the conclusion that they didn't know what they were doing," Holden said.
By 1984, the Calspan scientists had completed a 112-page report , the most intensive research ever into snow-making. Resort owners came up with even more money for a prototype model and Holden and his associates achieved "first snow" despite having to use warm water in a 95-degree room.
Snow-making guns -- invented by Wayne Pierce while he was tinkering with a pneumatic paint sprayer 40 years ago -- basically mix jets of air and water; standard guns use high-pressure air provided by compressors, but the Dendrite gun instead uses energy from the water jet.
Less energy is used to form the flakes, and they tend to be fatter and heavier than those produced by the standard guns.
Patents were filed in 1986, secret tinkering continued and eventually -- after efforts to interest American and Japanese investment groups -- a partnership was formed.
The development effort has cost about $700,000, but savings in energy costs could be much higher in the long run and ski resorts could gain even more by extending the season by using guns that can cover the trails in marginal temperatures.
Sixteen of the original resorts, with KB as the only New York site, remain shareholders in the Dendrite Associates group, headed by Rick Carter of Ski Sundown in Connecticut. Discount gun purchases are one of the benefits.
"We got ours the first week of December," said Halter, "so we haven't had a great deal of time to play with them. We've had two nights when we could make snow, so right now we're rookies at operating our guns."
Holden's technology requires some tuning and works best at high water pressures, so Halter thinks the mixed reports he's getting from his snow-making crews stem from a significant difference in water pressures at the top and the bottom of the KB slopes.
On the slopes, where hardened snow-making crews work with freezing water through the dark winter nights, the next few weeks should tell the story.