Olympic Snowmaking Tricks
The Rosa Khutor resort near the Black Sea in Russia is more humid and warmer than previous locations that have hosted the Winter Olympics.
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Joe VanderKelen knows Sochi. As one of the lead architects of the snowmaking efforts for the 2014 Winter Olympics, VanderKelen has traveled to the far-flung Black Sea resort 25 times since 2007, helping Russia prepare for its big moment on the world stage next month.
Because the Rosa Khutor resort where the Alpine and Nordic events are scheduled to take place next month is both warmer and more humid that most winter sport venues in Europe and the United States, VanderKelen -- president CEO of Michigan-based SMI Snowmakers, is applying brute force make sure the competitors have enough snow.
"We're not depending on one centimeter of natural snow," VanderKelen says. As part of its contract with the Olympic organizers, SMI set up 450 snowguns around the Caucuses Mountain resort to convert 12,000 gallons a minute of water into snow. VanderKelen said the source of the water is a high-altitude stream that was discovered by his team during a helicopter flyover several years ago.
SMI’s pumps and machines are powered by 16 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 16,000 U.S. homes. They are controlled by fiber-optic lines and an automated system that adjusts pumping and snowmaking to changing weather conditions.
Using diesel power, electricity and water, the science of snowmaking is simple, according to VanderKelen. First, a snowmaking machine breaks the water into small particles from 200 to 300 microns (raindrops are 500 microns to 4 mm).
Then it supercools the water to 32°F (0°C) without allowing the water to turn to ice and expand in size. Finally, the snowgun takes small amounts of water and compressed air to form tiny particles that start the snowmaking process, called nucleation.
“We will take small amounts of water and compressed air and form ice crystals or snow seeds,” VanderKelen said. “It needs the catalyst or the starting source for the freezing. With machine made snow, we only have 5 to 10 seconds to freeze the water droplet before it hits the ground.”
Snowmaking requires relatively large quantities of water. To cover an area that's 200 feet by 200 feet with 6 inches of snow, the machines need 82,000 gallons of water, about 11 truck tankers full.
The Rosa Khutor resort near the Black Sea in Russia is more humid and warmer than previous locations that have hosted the Winter Olympics.Jens Buettner/Corbis
Many ski areas can convert over 5,000 gallons per minute of water into snow or about a truckload of water every minute.
Cold, dry air is ideal for snowmaking. In fact, some resorts have made snow at 38 to 40 degrees with extremely low humidity. But the Sochi area is near the Black Sea, and often gets waves of warm moist air. That’s why the Olympic organizers have a backup plan. His name is Mikko Martikainen.
Martikainen, president of Snow Secure, a Helsinki firm, has stockpiled 500,000 cubic meters of natural snow at Rosa Khutor under tarps made of a special geotextile insulation that have kept it cool since it fell last winter.
Martikainen wants to be sure that if disaster in the form of warm weather strikes that the games will go on. During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic games, the lack of snow forced some racers to ski over rocks during training runs.
The other problem, Martikainen said, is too much snow. That will require an army of volunteers, and places to shovel it.
For the Alpine events, after officials groom the slopes and set up a series of red and blue gates, liquid water and special hardening chemicals are sprayed onto the race course. That makes the snow surface rock hard, minimizes the ruts dug by ski edges, and provides a consistent surface for all competitors.
The good news, according to both snow-making experts, is that cold temperatures have gripped Rosa Khutor and snowmaking has been underway since November. Still, the two anxiously check e-mailed weather reports several times a day to make sure there isn’t a big meltdown before the games’ opening on Feb. 6.
"The athletes are professionals, they will handle it no matter happens," Martikainen said from Helsinki. "Still we have to remember that Nature is strong, and if it decides to do anything abnormal, then it will do it."