Russia stores snow for Winter Games
In April, at the end of another seemingly endless winter, most Russians are eager to get rid of the piles of snow on their streets. But down south in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, fleets of heavy machinery and a corps of labourers are hard at work trying to store acres (hectares) of the freezing white stuff for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Two test events for the Sochi games - snowboarding parallel slalom and slope-style skiing - had to be cancelled in February because of lack of snow or rainy weather in the region set along Russia's southern border. That raised alarms for Russian organisers, who shuddered to think of the repercussions if the same problem turned up when the world is watching the Sochi Olympics, which run from February 7 to 23 next year.
So organisers are gathering up 16 million cubic feet (450,000 cubic meters) of snow and trying to keep it from melting away this summer. That's been roughly the same volume as the Cologne Cathedral or about how much water flows over Niagara Falls in four minutes - by any measure, a big amount.
"This is kind of a safeguard for the future," said Sergei Bachin, director-general of the Roza Khutor resort that will host Sochi's Alpine skiing and snowboarding events. In another layer of protection for the games, Roza Khutor also boasts of what it claims to be Europe's biggest snow-making system.
"We can make such an amount of snow over several nights that we could host the games even if there was not a single snowfall," Mr Bachin said.
Sochi, a city of 343,000 people, sprawls over extremely varied terrain, from the palm trees lining its Black Sea coast to the soaring mountains 25 miles (40km) inland. The region has received billions in development funds over the last few years. At an estimated cost of about 50 billion US dollars, the Sochi games are on track to be the world's most expensive Olympics, but it is still an area where the weather can change markedly and forecasters have trouble predicting what is next.
Roman Vilfand, chief of the Russian Meteorological Office, said his agency was struggling to accurately predict how much snowfall Sochi's mountain area will get in February because of a shortage of regional data. There's a weather station in the Krasnaya Polyana settlement in the mountains, but it is 1,600ft (500m) below the competition slopes and has been operating only for 10 years.
The uncertainties have prompted a massive Russian response. Slurping up icy-cold water from two artificial lakes, some 200 snow-blowing machines at Roza Khutor have been making tons of artificial snow throughout the 2012-2013 winter season. This month, dozens of snowcats on caterpillar treads are roaming the slopes, pushing snow into eight enormous piles that are dozens of meters (yards) high and close to key Olympic courses.
Before blanketing a snow pile with insulated material, they drill meter-deep holes in it to secure wooden anchors, attached by a rope to a wooden plank that runs along the pile. The pile is then covered with hundreds of nearly an inch (2.2cm) thick insulated blankets with reflective surfaces. Those are linked with hook-and-loop tapes and then with adhesive tape, and more wooden planks are piled on top.