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Here's How the 450 Guns Used to Make Snow at the Olympics Work


"We're not depending on one centimeter of natural snow."

With the Winter Olympics opening in Sochi, Russia, in less than three weeks, snow conditions for skiing and other outdoor events are looking good. But just in case, officials are ready with the big guns -- literally -- to produce the perfect conditions athletes need for optimum competition at the games.

You may have heard of artificially produced snow before, but have you ever wondered just how it's produced and distributed?

Joe VanderKelen, president and CEO of SMI Snowmakers in Michigan, has the answer.

Snowmakers SMI Snowmakers has more than 400 "snowguns" ready to make the Sochi Olympics a winter wonderland. (Image source: SMI Snowmakers)

"We're not depending on one centimeter of natural snow," VanderKelen told Discovery News, dishing out the details about how his snow machines are ready to help out at the Olympics.

The company started planning for the work about seven years ago after Russia was awarded the 2014 games. They identified a natural stream in the mountains at Rosa Khutor resort as a water source that could serve up to 12,000 gallons of water per minute for 450 snowguns stationed on the mountains, Discovery News reported.

Why so much water?

Snowmakers Image source: SMI Snowmakers

According to Discovery News, blanketing a 200-square-foot area with six inches of snow requires 82,000 gallons.

Here's how the machines develop the powder:

Using diesel power, electricity and water, the science of snowmaking is simple, according to VanderKelen. First, a snowmaking machine breaks the water into small particles from 200 to 300 microns (raindrops are 500 microns to 4 mm).

Then it supercools the water to 32°F (0°C) without allowing the water to turn to ice and expand in size. Finally, the snowgun takes small amounts of water and compressed air to form tiny particles that start the snowmaking process, called nucleation.

The system built for the games at Rosa Khutor resort took eight months to put together.

Watch SMI Snowmaker's video about its equipment and see some of the machines in action:

But there's always the potential the air near Sochi will be too warm for even artificial snow production. Enter the backup plan.

According to Discovery News, this alternative consists of a large stockpile of snow. The Finnish company Snow Secure has about 500,000 cubic meters of natural snow that fell last winter stored under special tarps.

If Mother Nature throws a curve ball and sends too much snow, Discovery News wrote that an "army of volunteers" will be on hand to shovel to the optimum level.

No matter the conditions though, Mikko Martikainen, president of Snow Secure, told Discovery News the athletes "will handle it." They are professionals after all.

The 2014 Olympic Games begin Feb. 7.

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