Freezing Sochi: How Sochi was Transformed for the Olympics

Spying in the Showers! Silencing Journalists! Fake snow! The insanely dangerous sport of Curling! Climate change endangering the future of the Winter Olympics!

So-chee!  So-chee!  So-chee! ‘


On a much more even-keeled note, Duncan Geere, writing for The Verge, explains some fascinating engineering feats that have made these Winter Olympics possible in Sochi. In case you were unaware (I was until ten minutes ago), Sochi is located at the far western edge of Russia, northeast of Turkey, along the Black Sea. It is a resort city which has a sub-tropical (generally 45-75 degrees fahrenheit) climate, more suited to tulip fields than skiing. The actual skiing will take place an hour away in a remote region called Rosa Katur. Here is the opening of Geere’s explanation of the way Russia’s engineering minds are keeping Sochi cold and snowy.

Sub-tropical Sochi, where Russians go to hang out at the beach.

Sub-tropical Sochi, where Russians go to hang out at the beach. On my mom’s side, there are ancestors from Odessa and Romania, on the opposite side of the Black Sea from Sochi. Pretty sure they never saw fake snow.

From The Verge:

However, the resort of Rosa Khutor is only three years old itself. Until two decades ago it had no road or telephone access, and when Russia won the bid in 2007 it was best known for its tulip fields and the generous productivity of its honeybees. The resort was almost unknown in the US for skiing, though French heli-skiers had been exploring its terrain for some years.

So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that transforming Rosa Khutor into an Olympic venue has been a rapid, expensive process. It’s estimated that the cost of staging the Olympics in Sochi has been greater than the previous three Winter Games combined — ballooning to a whopping $51 billion. A sizable chunk of that money has gone to dealing with the “whims of the weather,” as a spokesperson for Sochi 2014 put it in an email to The Verge.

Due to the region’s rural heritage, there’s no history of meteorological data to analyze — weather stations were only installed in 2010. Locals also say that temperatures tend to be wildly unpredictable — it’s not uncommon for 3 feet of snow to fall overnight, but in February, 2013 several World Cup events were canceled due to lack of snow.

But the Olympics can’t be canceled, and with the eyes of the world on Russia, it’s imperative that the former superpower gets this right. As such, Sochi 2014’s management team has put together a comprehensive plan to make absolutely sure that the Winter Games won’t be a washout. “Taken together, these measures will mean that snow is guaranteed, whatever the weather,” the Sochi spokesperson said.

Though Sochi’s management team refused to disclose the technical details of the program, they did detail an extensive system of safeguards that should mean there’ll be sufficient snow in Sochi for the games. These include the implementation of one of the largest snowmaking systems in Europe, comprising of two huge water reservoirs that feed 400 snow cannons installed along the slopes.


If that snow isn’t enough, then the authorities will fall back on 710,000 cubic meters of snow collected during the winters of previous years leading up to the games. To keep it from melting in the region’s hot summers, the 10 separate stockpiles have been kept packed tight under insulating covers high up in the mountains, safe from the sun’s rays. If the snow cannons aren’t sufficient to keep the tracks open, then a stockpile will be unsealed and the resulting mini-avalanche will be guided down the mountain, using half-pipes, to where it’s needed.

Speaking of avalanches, careful preparation has also gone into making sure that a natural disaster doesn’t overwhelm the young resort as the rapid pace of construction means that its landscapes have seen dramatic change in a very short space of time. Risk mapping, structural protection and explosive avalanche control techniques that trigger small, harmless flows before enough snow can collect for a huge, devastating event, are all being employed in the complex terrain that surrounds Rosa Khutor.

When the Olympics are over, this snowmaking and safety infrastructure won’t be dismantled. Instead, it’ll be used to extend Rosa Khutor’s ski season to between 140 and 180 days a year — far longer than many resorts are able to open for.

Down in Sochi itself, on the coast of the Black Sea, the other half of the games will be held. Here, the weather is less of a factor — five indoor arenas will host figure skating, speed skating, hockey, and curling, and an additional outdoor area will host the opening and closing ceremonies. The Olympic Park in Sochi will also play double-duty: it’s been carefully designed so that it can also act as a home for the Formula 1’s first Russian Grand Prix in October, 2014.

In each of these indoor arenas, underfloor cooling systems are installed so that the ice stays frozen above it. Like in other ice rinks around the world, this will be accomplished using a substance called propylene glycol, which doesn’t freeze until temperatures reach 8.6 F. The chemical is cooled in a refrigeration system and then pumped through pipes in aluminum panels that sit directly below the ice. The panels are chilled by the coolant, and the ice stays frozen.

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