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The Slick Science of Making Olympic Snow and Ice

One of the more crucial components -and often the most overlooked by spectators- is the ice and snow under the performing athletes. The Games cannot rely on the weather providing the required conditions for skiing, skating, and sledding. And the quality of the ice and snow is important for the fastest races and the most intricate stunts. Bumps on a bobsled run? They'll not only ruin an Olympic race, they're also dangerous. Tracy Seitz of Whistler Sliding Centre in Canada explains the intricacies of Olympic ice.

The quality and purity of ice is so important that a special position—the Ice Master—has been created to ensure its viability. Forget sculptors who make intricate ice sculptures; Ice Masters shape ice into some of the most impressive structures on earth. At least a year in advance of the Games themselves, they spray hundreds of paper-thin coats of this ultrapure water on a concrete course or rink, which is chilled by an embedded refrigeration system for rapid freezing. It takes around five days of non-stop work to lay the frozen track for a bobsled run, says Seitz.

This process prevents the formation of frost layers, which form when humid air freezes over the icy surface. Frost layers can trap air bubbles in the ice, which can work their way out as tiny pockmarks. “We don’t think of it [ice] as fluid, but it is very much so fluid, and it’s moving all the time,” says Seitz. “Those layers of air in the ice will create weaknesses that can break out and create inconsistencies in the ice surface.” For a bobsled, one tiny pockmark can cause a sled to bounce, perpetuating the problem. “One bump creates two bumps creates three bumps, and on and on and on,” he says.

The ice for indoor rinks is built to different standards for speed skating, figure skating, curling, and hockey. And the snow under skiers and snowboarders is engineered for speed as well, with the added difficulty of dealing with the vagaries of actual weather. Read about the different kinds of snow and ice and how they are created for the Olympics at Smithsonian.

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