Engineering for Snowy Weather

Winter Snow Storm Hammers Northeastern US

It’s been a brutal winter for those living in the Northeast, Midwest, and the South. With a seemingly never-ending string of snowstorms and polar vortexes hitting week after week, we thought it would be appropriate to look at some snow-specific engineering.

What does it take to engineer better skis or build a more effective half pipe? How about keeping skating rinks cold? Here are some interesting glimpses into the science and engineering behind cold-weather survival.

Skier DNA. Individuals who enjoy snow and skiing will certainly enjoy it more with custom-built skis. Entrepreneur Pete Wagner was a mechanical engineering major at the University of California, San Diego when he landed a job in the golf industry. His job was writing design code for the manufacture of composite material used in custom golf equipment. He later adapted his code for designing skis, but when he couldn’t  find a buyer for his software, he decided to manufacture them himself.

Wagner Skis is now creating skis designed specifically for a customer’s height, weight, age, location, and preferred terrain. Wagner explains, “Algorithms come up with an optimal design of length, width, side cut radius, and tip and tail shapes. We calibrate stiffness and flex patterns and output a recipe for skis.”

Olympic half pipes. Olympic snowboarder Shaun White seems to defy the laws of nature with half-pipe tricks like the Double McTwist 1260. In addition to his superb athletic skills, White relies on the engineering and design of the half pipe to get enough speed to generate “big air.”

The height of the walls and radius of the curve contribute to the tricks that can be accomplished. By building higher walls, you can get a bigger radius which allows the snowboarder to change directions at high speeds. The half pipe built for the Sochi Olympics for example was 22 feet high, 65 feet wide, and 557 feet long. Learn about the velocity, trajectory, and centripetal acceleration in this video on the science of snowboarding.

Keeping the chill in ice rinks. Skaters, hockey players, and spectators may not realize just how much tech is required to keep ice rinks in good condition. Refrigeration systems need to be engineered and designed to meet the size and temperature range of the environment. An industrial grade system may cost $500,000 to build and install, but could last for 20 years. Many professional stadiums, such as Los Angeles’ Stapes Center and Boston’s TD Garden, utilize the technology to make the switch from hockey rink to basketball court—sometimes in as little as 90 minutes.

Heated sidewalks. Imagine being able to easily walk around your neighborhood without the sidewalks being shoveled out. Researchers at the University of Alaska are testing carbon-fiber tape embedded in concrete sidewalks that can warm and automatically de-ice them during the winter.

Embedded three feet below the sidewalk, the carbon fiber tape uses a mere 24 volts to heat up the sidewalk and keep them clear of ice and snow. The concept was tested at the university’s Anchorage campus, which can get 230 inches of snow per year. Carbon fiber is conductive, with low resistance and is very safe for pedestrians.

The snow blower: still the best invention ever. About five years ago, there was a mad rush to buy snow blowers in the Northeastern US after a particularly bad winter. Then most of the country encountered two mild winters and all those snow blowers sat in the garage. But snowstorms were back with a vengeance this year and last—and all those snow blowers are being put to good use. We can thank Montreal inventor Albert Sicard who designed the snow blower in 1925 by adapting a four-wheel-drive truck chassis with a snow scooper and chute that propelled snow 90 feet away.

Photo by Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/MCT via Getty Images

About Maria Doyle

Maria Doyle is an independent communications consultant in the Boston area. She helps high tech companies with their writing, especially making complex topics more easily understood. Some of the topics she enjoys writing about include engineering and design innovation, customer success stories, and other STEM-related topics. Maria loves the fact that the industry continues to change, which keeps things interesting.
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