Snow Drift

[First signs of the real stuff yesterday as truckloads of transfered snow still pour in. Photo: Paul Chinn / Chronicle.]

[First signs of the real stuff yesterday as truckloads of transfered snow still roll in to Cypress Mountain, Vancouver. Photo: Paul Chinn / Chronicle.]

[Ed note: Inspired by the mounting concern over a dry unprecipitated Winter Olympics, an earlier version of this sat in our post-box for several weeks, though finding the time to complete it was elusive. In that time, places, mammoth, and BLDGBLOG all wrote excellent pieces on the ephemeral impact of snow on olympics, cities, and landscapes.]

Much has now been written about the snow-starved Cypress Mountain in the impending leadup to 2010 Winter Olympics opening later this week. In fact, there was no snow accumulation in January, and February has only yielded rain. They cant even get graupel if they wanted it. According to Canada’s National Weather Service, this has been the warmest Vancouver winter on record since 1937.  (Blame most commonly rests on an El Niño weather phenomenon warming the surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean. The typical weather anomaly scapegoat.) Just yesterday, as many organizers within VANOC had predicted, Cypress did see the beginning of a light dumping of the real thing.

[Making moguls on Cypress Mountain, Vancouver.]

[Making moguls on Cypress Mountain, Vancouver. Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press.]

Although not the first time there has been Olympic anxiety over an unseasonably warm January: Torino (2006) looked worryingly dry until just days before, Nagano (1998) had rain at the beginning, and Innsbruck (1964) famously moved 20,000 ice bricks for bobsled and luge events. So too, again 2010 Vancouver's snowboarding and some skiing events are threatened. Every good party has a plan B, but how realistic or desirable is any plan B?

[Trail map of Cypress Mountain.]

[Trail map of Cypress Mountain.]

When snow prospects at lower Cypress looked dim, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) unrolled the contingency plan to use snowcats, trucks, helicopters and a team of about 45 people to equitably redistribute snowfall. This led to two basic weather engineering practices: snow transfer and snow-base packing. Trucks and snowcats are moving snow from higher elevations, while helicopters are ferrying in bales of straw to bolster bases, walls and turns. Snow is being moved hastily - none of the ice brick techniques found at Innsbruck here - almost more as a cut-fill soil strategy. VANOC is trucking in about three dozen loads of snow a day from as far away as Manning Park, more than two hours drive east of Vancouver. That is over 300 truckloads and counting. VANOC has permits to use urea, commonly used in fertilizer, as a snow-hardening agent, but would do so only as a last resort. Other measures could include giant tarps to protect snowboard half-pipe walls between runs.

[Trucking in crystalline water ice, aka snow, from higher elevations 90 miles away in a massive weather transfer effort.]

[Trucking in crystalline water ice, aka snow, from higher elevations 90 miles away in a massive weather transfer effort.]


[Keep on trucking.]

In lieu of snow, VANOC has built halfpipes and other ski cross and snowboard cross course features from over 1,065 bales of straw, each weighing between 450 and 650 kilos. This is where snowboarding meets farming.


[Helicoptering 500-kilo bales of hay.]

[Unloading snow, er, bales of hay for snow packing foundation.]

[Unloading snow, er, bales of hay for snow packing foundation.]

So if plan A was do nothing, let nature take its course,  plan B definitely went into effect. Though if we always planned with plan B, it could argued that Winter Olympics could be more a state of mind than necessarily a climatological condition. And I dont mean Dubai Ski here, but maybe the logistics of snow transfer or drift , if planned in advance could invite some other geographical candidates for Olympics. Certainly if the games were held in Washington DC this year, everything would be fine, except for the obvious topographical problem.

If none of this works out for VANOC for tomorrow's opening -- and future Winter cities inconvenienced by El Nino take note! -- next time we recommend IDE's all-weather snowmaker.

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