The 22nd Winter Olympics are set to begin tomorrow in the Russian vacation hotspot of Sochi, promising two solid weeks of the world’s finest skiing, snowboarding and skating. Yet Sochi’s reputation as a resort comes not from its slopes, but from its beach; the city is one of only a handful in Russia to boast a subtropical climate. As in Florida, low temperatures in Sochi rarely reach the freezing point, and highs in summer can exceed 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit). How, then, is this summer paradise being transformed into a winter wonderland?
The answer lies in an army of snowmaking machines overseen by Mikko Martikainen, the Finnish businessman hired by Olympic organizers as the official snow expert of the games. Martikainen’s company, Snow Secure Ltd., will employ a combination of on-demand snow creation and giant piles of premade snow to ensure that the problems which plagued the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver do not occur in Sochi.
Although the first snowmaking devices, invented in the 1950s, were no more complicated than hoses that shot cold water into the air, current technologies use better physics to ensure that powder production is more effective. A modern snowmaking machine first breaks the water apart into miniscule droplets of 200 to 300 microns (roughly 1/100th of an inch) in diameter. These particles are then supercooled, a process that allows water temperatures to dip below freezing without the liquid turning into ice. By ensuring that the water contains no impurities and is stored in a perfectly smooth container, snowmakers provide no places for ice crystals to start forming (a process called nucleation).
The machine then introduces the necessary impurities by disturbing some of the droplets with small amounts of compressed air. The resulting mixture, when sprayed out of the snowmaker from a set of specialized nozzles, immediately turns into ice crystals that catalyze the freezing of the supercooled water being sprayed simultaneously from another ring of nozzles. In the five to ten seconds that the water is airborne, it turns into a snow of white frozen pellets that make a fine surface for winter sports.
Martikainen and his team have already made nearly 450,000 cubic meters (16 million cubic feet) of snow, which they have stored, perhaps counterintuitively, under a system of high-tech blankets. The first layer consists of a thermal foam covered in aluminum foil, much like duct insulation wrap, which keeps the cold in and the heat out. The second layer, a geotextile that encourages the evaporation of humidity, keeps the snow dry until needed. Martikainen hopes this backup plan won’t be necessary, but his company’s snow movers are ready to fill out the ski runs at a moment’s notice.
All this technology comes at a price, contributing to the record $50 billion cost of the Sochi Olympics; Vancouver’s games, for comparison, cost only $7 billion. Martikainen has managed to bring the blizzard to the beach, but future Olympic organizers may want to consider venues where Nature will do most of the work.