With just a few days left of what has become the warmest Winter Olympics, the ski and snowboard venues at Rosa Khutor on Tuesday finally saw snow -- natural snow, that is. For the 2014 Winter Games near Sochi, this was a strangely unexpected event.
"Nothing is covered with natural snow," Mikko Martikainen, snow adviser to the Olympic Organizing Committee, said by phone earlier Tuesday. "We are at 1,200 meters with heavy rain all day, but we still have the competition."
Tina Maze, who took home her second gold medal of the games after winning the women's giant slalom Tuesday, celebrated with a belly-flop onto the slushy snow at the bottom of the course, where she pretended to swim the breaststroke. "Didn't you feel like in [a] swimming pool? We are all wet, so I said, 'Why not?'" Maze said. "It's been a great day for me."
She kissed the snow -- the machine-made snow, which covers all the outdoor venues at the alpine resort in the Western Caucasus mountains about 30 miles from the coastal city of Sochi on the Black Sea.
Martikainen helped the Olympic Organizing Committee ensure that snow would be a part of the Winter Games. "We needed 1.5 million cubic meters for both training and competition areas," he said. For example, the ski jump, which has the smallest snow footprint, requires 40,000 cubic meters of snow.
Saving snow from yesteryear
Following Martikainen's directions, the Olympic organizers also had natural snow from previous winters -- as much as 450,000 cubic meters' worth -- under protective blankets in different locations as insurance, but because temperatures were cold enough to make snow earlier this season, they have not had to rely on the natural reserves. "In December, it was cold enough so we turned on the snow-making systems in every venue, so we didn't need the stored snow," he explained.
"Our goal was to lay down 150 to 175 percent of what was needed," Jon Wax, a snow maker from Mission Ridge, Wash., who spent December and January working at Rosa Khutor, told the New York Times earlier this month.
"The colder the air, the drier the air, the more freezing capability we have," added Joe VanderKelen, president of Snow Machines Inc., a company in Midland, Mich., that made the snow machines for the newly built Olympic alpine resort.
While Sochi falls on the same latitude as Toronto, the weather and the level of preparations to ensure snow was available at Rosa Khutor imply that despite global warming temperatures, future outdoor winter Olympic venues could take place in any location where artificial snow can be made as a backup plan or even, as was the case for 2014, as a primary plan.
That could be any place where machines can spray water droplets, cooled to just above freezing temperatures, around dispersed nucleating agents -- such as silver iodide or specialized bacterial proteins, which are also launched from the nozzles of the snow guns -- without the nozzles themselves freezing over and without the air being too humid to prevent ice crystal formation.
"The lower the humidity, the higher the temperatures that are possible for snow to form," the American Chemical Society explained in a recent YouTube video.
Hot competition on the slopes
All this makes Barcelona, Spain, a probable contender for the Winter Olympics in 2026 using the Pyrenees for the Alpine venues. So for 2034, why not Dubai, United Arab Emirates?
This year, Sochi seems to lean in the direction of Dubai. Bright sun brought temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the games Feb. 7, encouraging Olympian cross-country skiers last week to compete in sleeveless tank tops while some of the men in the stands took off their shirts to tan, creating an atmosphere more akin to the antics of the Summer Olympics.
Rain has caused delays to some events, and poor snow conditions during practices were addressed with chemically treated salt to form a thin layer of water, which refreezes on the snow. On Monday morning, heavy fog forced a one-day delay for the men's biathlon 15-kilometer mass start and snowboard cross races. The fog managed to clear for the women's biathlon 15-kilometer mass start to go on as scheduled.
"The competition was OK even if it was artificial [snow]," Martikainen said.
"For the [cross-country] ski races, it's been extremely hot, but in general I wouldn't consider the races a failure," U.S. Olympic skier Andrew Newell wrote in an email.
"They have had to resort to salting a lot of the uphills in order to firm up the snow, which isn't great, and many of the downhills on the course were really sketchy and soft, which has caused a number of athletes to crash during the races. As an athlete, we like to never blame conditions for the results of a race.
"'It's the same for everyone,' we like to say, but to crash at the Olympics is always a bummer. I think on the snowboard side, they have been worse off than us. I know they had a lot of problems preserving the halfpipe in these warm conditions and had to re-sculpt it a few times. In the end, according to the riders the pipe wasn't steep or fast enough to do their usual big maneuvers, which affected a lot of the top riders."
Sending a message to the world's politicians
So how do the athletes prepare for machine-made snow?
"In [cross-country] skiing, we are used to dealing with many different snow conditions," Newell said. "We travel to ski races with about 30 pairs of skis each designed for different snow conditions depending on the temperature and humidity in the snow. The skis also have different grids pressed into the bottom (a lot like tread on a tire), depending on how wet or dry the snow is. One of the toughest things about the Sochi Games so far has been predicting the weather and conditions have been hard to dial in. We definitely prefer to race in colder conditions because the snow tends to be more stable and can pack into a firmer track."
Newell wrote a letter, signed by 104 Olympians, asking politicians to "recognize climate change by reducing emissions, embracing clean energy and preparing a commitment to a global agreement at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris 2015."
"I think the warm conditions here in Sochi have added to the impact of the letter, but that wasn't my intent," he said. "As athletes we're not complaining about the conditions here in Sochi, and I want to make that message clear. We would be pushing this letter even if there had been perfect conditions for the games, and we are aware that geographically Sochi is in a warm area for winter sport. But the threat of climate change worldwide is very real, and that's what we want to voice.
"Once every four years the entire world comes together, puts their differences aside to unite for one cause. The spirit of sport. The fact that our world leaders let politics get in the way and can't come together to combat climate change is the glaring message of our protest."
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