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Tue December 10, 2013
Sports

To Get Olympic Snow, Machines Give Nature A Nudge

Originally published on Wed December 11, 2013 12:30 pm

In Russia, organizers of the 2014 Winter Olympics have called on dozens of shamans to pray for snow. But the centerpiece of the Olympic snow strategy is man-made: a massive system that features more than 550 snow-making machines.

Sochi, Russia, which is hosting the Olympics, is a resort town on the relatively warm Black Sea. There are beaches and palm trees. The Alpine events will be held on a mountain just 30 minutes away, where last February it was raining, not snowing.

But while snow is necessary for skiing and snowboarding, it doesn't necessarily have to fall from the sky, says Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management magazine, a trade publication for resorts.

"The whole technology of snow-making has reached a point where it's possible to hold an event like this at Sochi and not have to really worry too much about whether or not there's a lot of natural snow," Kahl says.

People first started trying to make snow commercially in the 1950s, by spraying cold water into cold air and hoping the water droplets would freeze on the way down. The snow-making industry didn't really get going until the early 1970s — and even then it was still pretty hit and miss. It was a discovery in an unexpected place that kicked artificial-snow making into high gear.

In 1975, Steve Lindow, a graduate student in plant pathology, was studying a bacterium that causes frost damage in plants. Lindow found that the bacteria gave the water a catalyst, something for the molecules to attach to and form ice crystals.

Now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Lindow demonstrates how this common bacterium helps ice form. He has a test tube with supercooled water in it, but it doesn't turn to ice — until he drops in the bacteria. When they're added to the test tube, the water seems to magically form ice.

And it works every time, like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, instantly turning the water to ice. For the purposes of snow-making, adding the bacteria to water means snow can be made more efficiently and at relatively warmer — though still freezing — temperatures. And resorts all over the world started doing just that.

Still, snow-making was an imprecise art.

Barrett Burghard, the director of snow services at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, has been making snow for 26 years.

"When I started, we'd go up on the hill with a thermometer and we'd go around on a truck or snowmobiles and see where it was cold enough to make snow," Burghard recalls.

Burghard chuckles when he thinks back on those early days, because now he oversees a state-of-the-art automated snow-making system.

Each of his resort's latest, greatest fan guns monitors the temperature and humidity around it and can start up automatically when a snow-making sweet spot strikes. No bacteria added here. The machines break the water up into droplets that become artificial snowflakes.

Burghard demonstrates how one of the fan guns works, firing it up with his smartphone. But when it comes time for the water to turn on, the snow machine refuses to cooperate because it's warm outside. The machine is too smart. So, Burghard walks up to do a manual override.

"You can see now the snow is blowing out of the gun out onto the run," he says. Then he concedes: "It would be snow if it wasn't 60 degrees."

Water rains down on the ground below in a fine mist. Machines like these dot the mountainside at Rosa Khutor in Russia, which will host many of the snow sports at the Winter Games.

"There is a significantly powerful snow-making system there," says Joe VanderKelen, president of SMI Snowmakers in Midland, Mich.

SMI Snowmakers was one of the companies that built the Rosa Khutor snow-making system from scratch, including two man-made lakes used to pump water. VanderKelen says the system constantly adjusts to weather conditions.

"If they do see a cold snap coming in, even if it's only for a few hours, they can go ahead and start more than 100 machines and get the pumping plant going all within, say, a matter of minutes," VanderKelen says.

And if all of that fails, Olympics organizers have stockpiled massive amounts of snow from last winter, stored under insulated blankets and ready to spread on mountainsides like frosting.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And Audie Cornish. The organizers of Russia's Winter Olympics are nervous there won't be enough snow when the games start in February. They've called on dozens of shaman from Siberia to pray for snow. But the centerpiece of their snow strategy is a massive manmade system, featuring 550 snowmaking machines. NPR's Tamara Keith will be covering the 2014 Olympics and has this report on the evolution of snowmaking technology.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Sochi, which is hosting the Olympics, is a resort town on the relatively warm Black Sea. There are beaches and palm trees. The Alpine events will be held on a mountain just 30 minutes away, where last February it was raining, not snowing. Of course, snow is necessary for skiing and snowboarding, but it doesn't necessarily have to fall from the sky, says Rick Kahl, editor of Ski Area Management magazine, a trade publication for resorts.

RICK KAHL: The whole technology of snowmaking has reached a point where it's possible to hold an event like this at Sochi and not have to really worry too much about whether or not there's a lot of natural snow or not.

KEITH: People first started trying to make snow commercially in the 1950s, by spraying cold water into cold air and hoping the water droplets would freeze on the way down. The snowmaking industry didn't really get going until the early '70s and even then it was still pretty hit and miss. It was a discovery in an unexpected place that kicked artificial-snow making into high gear.

A graduate student in plant pathology named Steve Lindow was studying a bacterium that causes frost damage in plants.

STEVE LINDOW: And a few tubes...

KEITH: Now a professor, Lindow is in his lab at the UC, Berkeley, showing me how this common bacteria helps ice form. It gives the water a catalyst, something for the molecules to attach to and form ice crystals. He has a test tube with super-cooled water in it, but it doesn't turn to ice until he drops in the bacteria.

LINDOW: We will add just a tiny drop, one, two three.

KEITH: Ice. It works every time, like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, instantly turning the water to ice. For the purposes of snowmaking, adding the bacteria to water means snow can be made more efficiently and at relatively warmer, though still freezing, temperatures. And resorts all over the world started doing just that. Still, snowmaking was an imprecise art.

Barrett Burghard, the director of snow services at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, has been making snow for 26 years.

BARRETT BURGHARD: Before, you know, when I started, we'd go up on the hill with a thermometer and we'd go around on a truck or snowmobiles and see where it was cold enough to make snow.

KEITH: Burghard chuckles when thinking back on those early days, because now he oversees a state-of-the-art automated snowmaking system. Each of his resort's latest, greatest fan guns monitors the temperature and humidity around it and can start up automatically when a snowmaking sweet spot strikes. No bacteria added here. The machines break the water up into droplets that become artificial snowflakes.

BURGHARD: The fans should start here in a second. It kind of takes a second for it to happen. It shows that it's starting. There it goes.

KEITH: Burghard is demonstrating how one of the fan guns works, firing it up with his smartphone. But when it comes time for the water to turn on, the snow machine refuses to cooperate because it's warm outside. The machine is too smart. So Burghard walks up to do a manual override.

BURGHARD: You can see now the snow is blowing out of the gun right onto the run.

KEITH: Or it would be snow if it wasn't 60 degrees.

BURGHARD: That's right. If it wasn't - yeah, it'd be snow if it wasn't 60 degrees.

KEITH: Water rains down on the ground below in a fine mist. Machines like these dot the mountainside at Rosa Khutor in Russia, which will host many of the snow sports at the Winter Games.

JOE VANDERKELEN: There is a significantly powerful snowmaking system there.

KEITH: Joe VanderKelen is president of SMI Snowmakers in Midland, Michigan, one of the companies that built the Rosa Khutor snowmaking system from scratch, including two manmade lakes used to pump water from. VanderKelen says the system constantly adjusts to weather conditions.

VANDERKELEN: You know, if they do see a cold snap coming in, even if it's only for a few hours, they can go ahead and start, you know, more than 100 machines and get the pumping plant going all within, say, a matter of minutes.

KEITH: And if all of that fails, Olympics organizers have stockpiled massive amounts of snow from last winter, stored under thermal blankets and ready to spread on mountainsides like frosting. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.