While this year's winter olympics have been plagued by trouble and controversy, organisers can remain confident that the sub-tropical resort town of Sochi will enjoy the best possible snow conditions for sporting events.
The coastal resort town of Sochi, situated on the eastern littoral of the Black Sea, would appear to be a highly unusual choice as the staging grounds for a major winter sporting event.
This is particularly the case given that it’s one of few sub-tropical cities in host nation Russia, which is renowned for its vast frigid reaches, and is home to myriad other locations which would be preferable in terms of natural climate conditions.
In addition to this, Sochi is also subject to highly variable temperature levels, leaving even expert climate forecasters with little hope of predicting weather conditions too far in advance.
Untoward weather has stymied the success of previous winter olympics, with the 2010 Vancouver games considered somewhat of a debacle due to unseasonably warm weather, which led to low quality snow.
Despite some embarrassing oversights in their preparations for other key aspects of these Winter Olympics, Sochi’s organisers have taken pains to ensure that the sub-tropical city is blessed with just the right environmental conditions for the wintry sporting events. To this end they have availed themselves of two highly ingenious measures from the environmental engineering toolkit.
The first was to literally “hoard” the ample amounts of snowfall that Sochi enjoyed last winter, via the use of 10 different makeshift reservoirs situated in the area’s rugged mountain ranges. These storage piles have managed to preserve approximately 450,000 cubic metres of snow through the torrid Black Sea summer, via the use of huge isothermal blankets which have helped to maintain their low temperatures.
Isothermal blankets are usually employed on a far more modest scale as emergency tools for the rescue of people in circumstances where they could succumb to hypothermia. They consist of a low bulk, low weight fabric with a heat-reflective surface, which in the case of both cold weather emergency victims and the Sochi snow hoards is capable of reflecting up to 97 per cent of radiated heat.
The snow banks are useless if they remain stuck in their mountain fastnesses, so engineers have constructed channels and ramps connecting their high altitude storage point to the competition slopes, where they can be deployed to create a base layer of snow should prevailing weather prove unfavourable.
Sochi organisers can also make recourse to a far more spectacular, high-tech means of generating snow, with a fleet of 450 industrial snow cannons on stand-by, each of which is capable of generating a mini artificial blizzards in temperatures of up to 16 degrees Celsius.
The cannons operate by compressing the just the right amount of water vapour and then cooling it, producing an artificial snow which is if anything superior to the naturally occurring variety.
The air pressure used by the snow cannons results in tiny spheres of frozen moisture instead of the patterned, symmetrical flakes to which we’re all accustomed. Because of their reduced surface area, these spherical spheres of ice are capable of remaining solid for a longer period of time than their conventional peers.