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Snowfall off, ski areas turn to technology

Lee Willey moved mountains of man-made snow with a snow groomer at Loon Mountain. An HKD tower gun sent out man-made snow near the base of the mountain.

Fred Field for the Boston Globe

Lee Willey moved mountains of man-made snow with a snow groomer at Loon Mountain. An HKD tower gun sent out man-made snow near the base of the mountain.

LINCOLN, N.H. — Just a few inches of snow had fallen in central New Hampshire, but a week after Halloween, skiers were schussing down the slopes of Loon Mountain Resort.

This year’s season brought the earliest top-to-bottom opening ever for Loon Mountain, aided by technological advances that have allowed ski resorts to make snow faster, more efficiently, and at higher temperatures.

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Threatened by climate change, the region’s resorts are spending millions to respond to warming winters and less frequent snowfall that could put them out of business. One forecaster predicts that more than half of the 103 resorts in the Northeast could be forced out of business over the next 30 years if temperatures rise as expected.

That spells opportunity for companies like HKD Snowmakers in Natick. Twenty years ago, the upper limit for making snow with HKD equipment was about 22 degrees; today, HKD can make quality snow up to 28 degrees. The next quest: 30. “We’re farmers,” said HKD president Charles Santry. “Farmers always say you make hay when the sun shines, and for us, you make snow when the temperatures are cold enough.”

Finding ways to increase the yield of snow during increasingly shorter periods of cold weather has helped HKD become one of the leading manufacturers of snowmaking equipment, serving more than 400 resorts around the world, including Breckenridge in Colorado and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia.

Early last month, Loon Mountain was able to blanket 37 acres of trails with several feet of snow in about 40 hours.

Fred Field for the Boston Globe

Early last month, Loon Mountain was able to blanket 37 acres of trails with several feet of snow in about 40 hours.

The company has grown substantially in the past five years, expanding from six employees to 30 as resorts push to extend their seasons and Mother Nature gets stingier.

Santry, a Dartmouth MBA and former real estate analyst, started the company more than two decades ago with his father-in-law, Herman K. Dupre, the eponymous HKD who owned a ski resort in southwestern Pennsylvania. Dupre first attempted to make snow in the early ’70s when he realized he couldn’t depend on natural snow, pumping water and air into an empty propane can screwed to a golf course sprinkler.

HKD has been tinkering with that basic formula of water, air, and cold weather since its founding in 1991, experimenting with hoses and nozzles, adapting technologies from other industries, adding electronics, and studying the natural engineering that produces the crystalline structure known as a snowflake.

HKD was the first company to put snow guns on towers to create a longer “hang time” as the flakes fall, modeled after the journey natural snow takes through the atmosphere, building up intricate crystals that are the essence of the silky powder that skiers crave. Dupre’s first guns were only a few feet off the ground, but as he realized that snow quality improved the longer it fell, he put guns on increasingly taller towers.

Today, because towers must be lightweight, yet sturdy enough to support 15-pound, stoplight-sized guns, their maximum height is 30 feet. But 40-foot towers are in the works.

Traditionally, snow-making involved pumping high pressure water and compressed air into a snow gun, which blasts tiny water droplets and even tinier particles of ice known as nuclei out of one nozzle, starting a chain reaction of crystal formation as the droplets and nuclei collide while descending to the ground.

Making snow at warmer temperatures meant finding a way to accelerate this chain reaction and use less energy. Adapting technology used in paint spraying, HKD developed a gun with multiple nozzles that uses less compressed air. Some nozzles spray super-fine droplets that freeze more readily at higher temperatures, and others mix compressed air and water internally to create more consistent icy nuclei for the droplets to cling to when they are blasted into the air.

HKD’s newest guns use sensors to adjust water flow and air pressure as temperatures change, a major improvement over older systems that require snowmakers to spend hours disconnecting and draining heavy, icy hoses after each session. It also makes the process less dangerous for snowmakers who have lost arms, broken limbs, and had teeth knocked out on dark, icy trails.

All this adds up to a more efficient process that allows resorts to take full advantage of short windows of cold weather. Early last month, Loon Mountain, which has invested $3 million into snowmaking in the past three years, blanketed 37 acres of trails with several feet of snow in about 40 hours — an undertaking that not long ago would have taken a week.

“The more effective that snowmaking becomes,” said Rick Kahl, editor of the trade publication Ski Area Management, “the easier it is for resorts to say, we’ll be able to open by Thanksgiving.”

Most HKD employees are outdoor enthusiasts who benefit from the fruits of their snowmaking labor. Santry, 51, an avid lacrosse player and sailor who competed on a 1987 America’s Cup team, played hockey growing up in Connecticut and learned to ski in Quebec. His wife, Anni, vice president of finance for HKD, skied and rowed at Dartmouth College.

Demand for their product is likely to keep growing. If temperatures continue to rise, resorts that survive will have to increase their snowmaking by as much as 50 percent, according to a study by the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Still, for skiers and boarders, nothing compares to the real thing. Sarah Borup, a 26-year-old from Boston who skis Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire and Burke Mountain in Vermont, describes natural powder as “moving on clouds.”

Manmade snow, which contains more water, feels granular under your skis, Borup said.

Santry knows HKD’s snowmaking process can’t compete. But he keeps striving to create the lightest, fluffiest snow he can. “It’s tough to beat Mother Nature,” he said, walking across the parking lot at Loon as his guns pumped plumes of snow onto the slopes behind him. “We try. But she’s good.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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