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Olympics 2014: Let the Science Begin!

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia will be featuring many exciting events for the world to see. Though the Olympics Games is the premier athletic competition worldwide, the games also bridge the gap between science and sports by covering a number of Earth science topics as well.

Greenland and the Arctic Icecaps

The Arctic Ocean is capped by a dynamic layer of sea ice that grows each winter and shrinks each summer, reaching its yearly minimum extent each fall. NASA’s Aqua satellite used microwaves to capture this snapshot of Arctic sea ice on September 3, 2010. The yearly minimum had not yet been reached, but past history says the low point should occur sometime in mid-September. Perhaps what is most striking in this picture is the extent of the Greenland icecap—almost the whole island is overlain by a huge and deep (almost three miles deep in places) sheet of ice. The Greenland icecap averages almost a mile in thickness and contains about 10 percent of the total ice mass on the globe.

Water Usage in the Rink

The opening ceremonies, along with the indoor events: ice hockey, figure skating, short track speed skating, curling, speed skating, and ice dancing will occur in seven arenas making up the “Coastal Cluster” of Olympic Park.

The U.S. Geological Survey compiles water use statistics every five years and hopes to build towards a National Water Census. But how much water is used to build an Olympic ice skating rink and how does that compare to domestic water use?

According to How Stuff Works, an ice hockey rink needs between 12,000-15,000 gallons of water to create the ice surface before maintenance over the Olympic festivities. In the United States, the average person uses 54-190 gallons of water per day depending on where they live.

Climate and Land Use Change: Withdrawing from the Snowbank

As the earth’s climate has warmed over recent decades, the amount of winter precipitation that falls as snow and accumulates as snowpack has changed substantially. Many regions have experienced more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, with enhanced spring warming increasing rates of snowmelt resulting in reduced winter snowpack and earlier meltout.

The USGS has studied changes in accumulated snowpack and snowcover in the western U.S. and Alaska, along with the closely related melting of perennial icefields and glaciers, changes in water resources, and the earlier onset of spring. These studies place recent changes within the context of the past century, and in several cases millennia, and indicate recent rates and spatial patterns of change are unusual relative to the past.  This suite of climate driven changes to snow, ice, and water resources documented as occurring throughout the U.S. exemplifies broader global patterns, and now plays an important role in planning for the outdoor events of the Olympic Games. Obviously, both snow quantity and quality can and do have a major effect on athletes competing in skiing competitions.

Last year in Sochi, Russia, the extremely low winter snowpack caused concern for this year’s Olympic Games. Similarly to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada, snowbanks have been set up in Sochi to preserve last year’s snow for the games. After the snowfall in 2013, roughly 28 million cubic feet of natural and artificial snow was moved into massive piles and covered with reflective and thick blankets to reduce melting.

If there is not enough snowfall for all of the outdoor events for the 2014 games, workers will be able to produce more artificial snow from the 446 snow guns positioned along the ski runs, and withdraw from the snowbank.

Olympic Minerals

Stone, wood, clay, copper, bronze, and iron were known to the ancient Greeks in 776 BC, the year recorded as that of the first Olympic Games. But the quantity and variety of minerals that have come into use since the first games have grown dramatically.

Today, the minerals we use include nearly every element on the periodic table. Minerals are critical to the Games including the fireworks during opening and closing ceremonies, transportation systems, venues, Olympic Village, power, lighting, communications systems, sports equipment, food, and even the medals worn by the athletes and the mobile devices they use during the Games all contain minerals.

The USGS provides scientific information about where mineral resources are known and suspected in the Earth’s crust. Each year, the USGS publishes the earliest government estimates of global mineral production and consumption data and trends for more than 90 individual non-fuel mineral commodities and materials. The 2014 USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries is expected to be available online by late February.

In the meantime here are some amazing Olympic mineral facts:

Color is a clue about composition: Gold v. Silver

Color is a clue about composition: Gold v. Silver

The Olympic Torch

The Medals

Originally wood, but it is now high tech, with an aluminum body and inside fittings of steel, copper, and polymers. According to the organizers, 14,000 torches have been produced for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The torches were made to burn reliably in the extreme cold and winds of a Russian winter. Olive-leaf wreaths served as the prize to winners in the ancient games. At Sochi, a record 1,300 medals will be issued for the Olympic and Paralympic games, according to organizers. Each Gold Medal will contain gold and silver, each Silver Medal will contain silver, and each Bronze Medal will contain bronze produced from copper, tin, and zinc.

Sports Equipment

Communications Technology

Equipment used in Winter Olympic events was formerly composed almost entirely of wood and steel. Today, aluminum, fiberglass, mineral-based fibers, and specialty steel alloys are used as well. Ice skates have chrome-plated, carbon-steel blades. Skis are aluminum, titanium, carbon-fiber, and boron-fiber base, with tungsten alloy balance weights. Boots are made from ceramic fibers (aluminum, clay, lithium, silica, tin, titanium, and zircon) and steel. Ski lift cables are made of alloy steel and cars contain aluminum and steel. Sled runners in skeleton and luge are made of steel. Biathlon rifles use a nitride-steel or stainless steel barrel. Televisions, computers, cell phones and other handheld electronics, use aluminum, copper, gold, palladium, platinum, silver, and tungsten. What lights up the screen on most of these devices and the dash board in modern cars?  Energy-efficient LED lighting: gallium, germanium, indium, and rare-earth elements.

 

Geothermal Energy Use in the Olympic Games

Russia and the IOC have announced that the Sochi Games will be carbon-neutral, which, among other ways, will be achieved by investing in renewable energy sources like geothermal energy. Geothermal energy comes from the natural heat of the interior of the Earth. People have benefited from geothermal since the days of the original Olympic Games, such as in hot springs and bath houses used by the Greeks and Romans alike.

Today, geothermal energy is primarily used for electricity generation. USGS studies geothermal and, in 2008, released an assessment estimating that more than nine gigawatts of electrical power could be generated from identified systems in 13 Western states alone. For comparison, one megawatt of electric power would supply the needs of about 750 homes.

A view of Akutan Volcano from station AKGG

A view of Akutan Volcano from station AKGG. Photo courtesy of Plucinski, Tim.

Beyond the Competition

The Olympic Games not only bring the world’s greatest athletes together on the international stage, but create economic opportunities for host nations, establish channels for foreign policy discussions, and facilitated learning experiences for the viewers.

Did you know that the Sochi Games will be the first Winter Games in the history of the Olympics to be held in a subtropical climate?

Learn More:

USGS Water Use Poster

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Page Last Modified: February 2, 2011