The sight can be jarring during extreme drought: snowmaking guns lined up on a mountainside, blasting precious crystal flakes on a ski run while the rest of the land goes thirsty.

Snowpack in the U.S. West has decreased by about 20% in the last century, making man-made snow more vital each year to opening ski resorts and fueling ski town economies as they head into an uncertain future.

As the effects of drought and climate change increasingly hit home, the ski industry has invested millions of dollars in more efficient snowmaking systems amid questions about whether the practice is a wise use of energy and water.

“There are impacts. They’re regrettable. We’d rather not have to make snow,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. “But our regional economy and the economies of all ski towns depend on your ski resort operating. And so this is a necessary evil.”

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