Sports And Technology: Sochi's Olympics snow contingency plan

Wednesday December 11th, 2013

Don't let the palm trees lining the resort-town streets of Sochi, Russia, fool you. There will be snow for the 2014 Winter Olympics in February. Crews are making it now. As much as 750 cubic meters (26,000 cubic feet) of it.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, there's newfound reason to worry about actually having snow dress mountain slopes for modern Winter Olympics. We've already seen it, as the mountain venues outside Vancouver, B.C., in 2010 struggled with a lack of snow during unseasonably warm winter weather -- the Whistler site had snow, mind you -- that required hay bales under jumps and snow-transporting helicopters. Sochi? There's times this city of 350,000 on the shore of the Black Sea doesn't boast any snow on portions of its mountains, such as when it canceled the February 2012 World Cup snowboard cross and ski cross event for a lack of snow.

But give Sochi credit, they've had a plan for the possible shortage, calling on Finish snowmaking expert Mikko Martikainen to help devise a plan.

"The method is simple," the owner of Snow Secure tells "Make snow in the winter, collect the snow as a huge pile in the spring, insulate the pile, take the insulation away in early winter and take the snow."

To drape the five different snow-requiring venues on the steep hills near Sochi -- elevations for venues range from 2,000 to 6,560 feet -- with plenty of powder, Sochi has about 400 snowmaking cannons producing snow crystals after cool air and water mix at just the right temperature. For in-game emergencies, Sochi has even constructed an above-zero snowmaking plant at the ski jump/Nordic combined venue at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, the easternmost venue sitting at the lowest elevation of 2,000 feet, that can produce snow at temperatures up to +15 Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).

Joseph Fitzgerald, International Ski Federation's freestyle skiing coordinator, says this course of action appears better than the plan for Cypress Mountain in Vancouver. At the same time, the 20 competitions on six tracks in two purpose-built stadiums under his watch are designed to reduce the overall volume of snow needed, whether with groundwork or structures that can act as jumps.

"Our snowmaking systems are set to be very effective in all of the venues, even though we expect enough normal snowfall for all competition areas," says a Sochi 2014 spokesperson. "The back-up plan is to guarantee supplies in our snow storage concept."

Making snow is easy enough. Storing it gets trickier. With a new goal of storing a total of 750 cubic meters, organizers will use up to 10 different sun-sheltered locations on the slopes of the Rosa Khutor, Laura and Alpika ski resorts.

"Expertise and know-how is needed to guarantee good results," Martikainen cautions.

Snow has a tendency to evaporate, especially since Sochi's average high temperature in August is 82 degrees. That's where Martikainen's plan comes in. As the snow gets piled in protected areas, crews cover the snow with high-tech insulation blankets, rolled out individually. The thin coverings that look akin to a camper's sleeping pad, with aluminum folio on both sides, are filled with thermal foam. Add in a breathable "geotextile" material for a second covering that evaporates humidity and organizers hope to retain at least 80 percent of what was made, keeping above the 750 cubic meters threshold.

If -- when? -- needed, crews can use sno-cats to move the snow.

Likely the biggest need for makeshift snow comes at the snow-intensive features of the slopestyle and halfpipe courses. Located at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, which starts at a higher than treeline elevation of 6,560 feet and runs into the 3,084 feet range, there's always a question mark about snow at any elevation below 5,000 feet. In Vancouver, the hay bales helped build up slopes and jumps, but Sochi plans enough snow -- manufactured or not -- to do the trick without non-snow help.

The stored "old snow" will prove dense with high water content and make up the base layer. Either fresh natural snow or made snow will top it off for the competitions. The produced snow, says Fitzgerald, generally comes in at 400 to 600 kilograms per cubic meter, much heavier than natural snow at 250, but lighter than ice that reaches near 1,000.

Racing on hard snow isn't fun, but doable, Fitzgerald says. "You need to be in the cold climates to run snow-sport competitions."

On the facing slopes sits the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, complete with "several" different locations for stored snow. At about 5,000 feet, though, the two-stadium venue sits high enough that a lack of snow isn't as much of a concern.

The Sanki Sliding Center, located at 2,300 feet, serves as the one mountain venue largely unconcerned with weather.

"We're confident that Sochi's plans for hosting the games will offer America's finest athletes a fantastic experience," says USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky.

Even as Sochi officials push the mantra that natural snow will carpet their venues ("we expect the weather to be perfect and provide all the snow we need"), cannons and specialized blankets pepper the mountainside serving as a high-tech reminder that wrong doesn't work at the Olympics.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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