Snowmaking with computers and an iPhone

To prepare for the Sochi Winter Olympics, organizers have hundreds of snowmaking machines ready to go. It's the same type of equipment being used at Northstar California ski resort in Lake Tahoe, where CNET got a look at its automated snowmaking system.

Despite the years of preparation for each Winter Olympics, one thing can be tough to control -- the amount of snow Mother Nature drops on the ski and snowboarding venues.

Now technology is making it easier to create a winter wonderland when nature doesn't cooperate.

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At Northstar ski resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif., which is trying to keep its slopes covered during a drought, the snowmaking system is automated to make the process more efficient.

Northstar California

"There are big air compressors and that air is transferred up the mountain in pipelines," said James Larmore, director of Mountain Operations at Northstar. "There are also water pumps that do the same thing -- follow the airlines up the mountain and enter a hydrant."

Snowmaking guns along a run at Northstar California Jared Kohler/CNET

The water and air are combined in several types of snowmaking guns strategically placed along the runs and near lifts.

Lamore said the automation allows for quick adjustments to the snowmaking guns so they're operating at maximum efficiency. It also makes it easier since workers don't have to drive up to the guns in snow mobiles to manually push buttons.

"All of the compressor plants, the water pumping, are all automated. I can get it on my home computer. In fact, I can get it on my phone-- start compressors, start water pumps and actually adjust these guns with your iPhone."

As the temperature drops, the ability to make snow rises. Larmore said, in a 10-degree night, Northstar can cover 20 football fields four to five feet deep in an hour. The snow differs in size and texture from the flakes that fall from the sky.

"Mother Nature has these big flakes because they go up 35,000 feet in the air and that particle goes up and down and collects moisture," Larmore explained. "With snowmaking, when it leaves the gun, it only has 100 feet until it reaches the ground. It has a hundred feet to make that connection so all the particles don't quite touch together as it does in a big flake. So the particles are a little bit smaller."

While Northstar relies on snow-making machines, Sochi Olympic organizers have one more trick up their sleeves to make sure there's enough snow. They've stockpiled snow from last winter and stored it under insulated blankets.

 

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