The Sochi Snowman

Mikko Martikainen is owner and chief executive of Snow Secure, the Finnish company responsible for ensuring that the Sochi Winter Olympics have sufficient snow. Martikainen answered 15 of our questions about the business of providing snow when nature doesn't.

The Active Times: A basic question to start: How do you make artificial snow?
Mikko Martikainen: Two options: a) Ordinary snowmaking system which utilizes nature's free freezing energy. More than 99.99% of snowmaking is this. b) Above-zero snowmaking systems that use different types of refrigeration units or liquid nitrogen (-186 degrees C), [which are] less than 0.01% of snowmaking.

How did you get involved in the business?
I started skiing at 2 years old. After that I became an Alpine skiing coach, then owned a small skiing hill, learning about snow and starting my own business focusing on snow (snow also outside snow sports). [I'm] still learning after more than 50 years on snow.

Is this your first Olympics?
I work for the Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014 (OCOG) as a snow expert. My duty is to work on snow provision at the strategic level. Yes, [it's my] first Olympics.

When did you start working on the Sochi Winter Olympics?
May 2010. [We] presented the First Master Plan, "Sochi Snow," in November 2010, and have updated it every year. [There are] inspections and reports for OCOG almost every month until now. All detailed planning for the snow is made by the venue owners, the Russian and international snow experts and the big snowmaking systems companies. 

Are there particular challenges to making snow in Sochi, a Black Sea resort with a humid, subtropical climate and mild winters?
The highest peak in Europe—Mt Elbrus,  5,643 meters—is only 180 km away from the snow sport venues. The Black Sea is also nearby (40 km). A perfect spot for snowmaking in winter time!

What snow-making capacity will you have in Sochi?
Snowmaking plants are powerful. There will be 500 snow guns across all the snow sport venues. Total need for snow with reserve snow: 1.5 million cubic meters. (An amount sufficient to fill five crude oil supertankers – Ed.)

You stockpiled snow for Sochi. Where did you get it from; how do you keep and use it? Stockpiling snow over the summer is like having insurance against what happened at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 when Cypress Mountain lacked snow. We thought we might be facing the warmest winter in Caucasus mountains in 150 years. We made and collected snow in huge piles last winter, insulated them in spring, and shipped the snow to the venues in late autumn and early winter.  Some 450-thousand cubic meters of snow was available by November 2013. However, December was markedly colder than average, so no need to use this insurance snow. Snowmaking plants will do all the work.

Once the Games are underway, what are your operational challenges?
Every venue will have its own snow team that will tackle every possible—and impossible—task when it comes to snow. 

Is there a difference between artificially made snow and the real stuff?
Snow sports are mainly outdoor sports (there are some indoor snow arenas around the world). It is mission impossible to try battle against the power of Mother Nature. But there are several techniques with which you can modify snow in different weathers, to harden or soften it for example.   

How do you keep artificial snow from being too powdery or too dry?
Snow maintenance is critical. The right actions at the right moment. For example, you can add water deep into snow to make it harder.

What recent technical innovations have there been in snow making?
Less energy consumption, better snow quality; this development process is ongoing.

What is the big unsolved challenge facing snowmakers?
Good innovations are already being made in small snowmaking companies; like zero-energy snowmaking (water reservoir on the top...utilizing gravity....special nozzles/snowmakers which work with only water, no compressed air or blowers needed).

How warm can it get and you can still make snow?
With ordinary snowmaking systems you start normally effective snowmaking around minus 3 degrees C—effectiveness increases the colder the weather is. Ineffective snowmaking is possible normally when the wet bulb temperature (a mixture of thermometer temperature and relative humidity) is between 0 degrees C  and minus 2 degrees C. In some very special cases you can make snow even at 5 degrees C or even a bit more, if cold water is available and relative humidity is very low. My record is 25 degrees C in South Africa when testing an above-zero snowmaking plant.   

How environmentally sound is snowmaking?
There are no chemicals used in ordinary snowmaking. The best snowmaking systems are very environmentally friendly. The big differences between the various snowmaking technologies are when it comes to energy consumption.

What are the economics of snowmaking? Is it something a snow resort does only when nature fails it, or could summer—or even year-round—skiing on artificial snow be economically viable?
Every modern ski resort need a snowmaking system. Without snow there is no snow-related business. Snow is money! With snow storage (stockpiling snow over the summer under insulation) it is possible to have a fixed opening date and start the skiing season without any freezing temperatures or natural snow. However, when stockpiling the snow, you need to understand the whole process deeply. There is a big risk of making critical mistakes even if the basics of the concept are easy to understand.