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Science of Snowmaking: How snow at Winter Olympics is made

When it comes to the Winter Olympics, snow is kind of a big deal.
Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 3:26 PM CST
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (KEYC) — When it comes to the Winter Olympics, snow is kind of a big deal.

Earlier this month, Meteorologist Shawn Cable traveled to Lake Tahoe and met up with an expert about the science of snowmaking and why “Olympic” snow is different than the type of snow you and I would typically ski at a place like Mt. Kato.

With the Winter Olympics, it’s all about the snow, at Heavenly Mountain Resort at Lake Tahoe, they’ve had people train for the Olympics, they’ve held events leading up to the Olympics, so they know snow for skiing.

There’s no one better to know the snow than Bryan Hickman. He is the senior snow surfaces manager at Heavenly Mountain Resort at Lake Tahoe.

Shawn Cable: “Brian, what is the perfect snow that you’re looking for when you’re out on the slopes?”

Bryan Hickman: “Well, there’s different kinds of snow, definitely, and mother nature plays a big part of that. What the Olympians are looking for is a lot different than what you and I are looking for when we’re out skiing. You know the racecourse surface, you’re looking for a really hard-packed snow. You hear the scraping sound that their skis make when they’re coming down a downhill course that is as hard as a rock that they’re skiing on and that’s a lot different than what you and I would like to ski on.”

SC: “How do you manage that difference? Is it all about the grooming or is it in the snowmaking?”

BH: “It’s a little bit of everything, you know, for a racecourse preparation, it starts with the snowmaking. You’re making a much wetter snow.”

SC: “Making snow is a science. It is not something that’s easily done, and it’s more than just spraying a hose into the air. What is involved in that snow-making process?”

BH: “When you’re making snow it’s a combination of air and high-pressure water and when you’re making it, you mix those two together in the right mixture for the texture of snow you want. So when you’re making racecourse snow, you’re a lot more water and less air and then it’ll give you a much firmer surface. When you’re making snow for the general public, like what we’re doing out here, it’s a little bit more air and less water and that way it doesn’t freeze quite as hard. You really do have to get the right mixture and to do that you actually have to go out in that plume. When we start making that snow and spraying it up in the air, you’ll see the guys go out there, and they’ll actually have it land on their sleeves and they’ll look and see what it’s doing and see if it’s bouncing. You want a little bit of a bounce. You want that little ice crystal to come down as ice and not as a water droplet. If there’s water, you end up with ice. If you got a little bit of bounce to it, you got just the right mixture, and you’re going to have a nice surface.”

The 2022 Winter Olympics will be live from Beijing starting Feb. 4. The games will be broadcast on KEYC.

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