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In the Fast Lane: The Secret Behind the Fastest Speedskating Ice on Earth
Posted by tedwards On Mon 07 Mar, 2016
You know that feeling you get when you have a difficult day at work or school, and then you go to speedskating practice. You put on your skinsuit, lace up your skates, and finally step onto the ice. You find your rhythm, work up speed, and it all starts to fall away—all the stress from your day completely gone. There’s no feeling in the world quite like it: going fast on great ice that gives you just the right glide. Ice rinks all over the U.S. have crews dedicated to making the best quality ice for their speed skaters. But what is it about the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval that makes it claim the title of “Fastest Ice on Earth”? Is it just the ice itself, or are there other factors involved? Today, we talk with Good4Utah Chief Meteorologist Dan Pope, Utah Olympic Oval General Manager Todd Porter, and US Speedskating Starter Garth Linder, to find out just what makes the ice at the Olympic Oval so fast.

High Altitude + Low Air Pressure = Fast Speed Skating Ice

The Utah Olympic Oval holds 8 of the current 11 long track speedskating records. One of the factors that goes into making the “Fastest Ice on Earth” is high altitude. The Oval sits at 4,669 feet (1,423m) above sea level. As far as enclosed speed skating ovals go, it is second in altitude only to the Xinjiang Winter Sport Centre in China, which sits at 5,610 feet (1,710m) above sea level. But what is it about high altitude that makes fast ice? The higher you go in altitude, the less air pressure you get, meaning less-dense air; and the less dense the air, the less resistance working against you when you speed skate.

Good4Utah Weatherman Dan Pope says, “Air pressure is the weight of air from outer space…to where the ground level is. So the higher up you go, the less air pressure above you. A good example is when you swim….The deeper you go in the water, the greater that water pressure is on you….In that same way with air—even though it’s not liquid—air pressure is pushing down on the ground. If you’re at sea level, you have more air, and subsequently, more air resistance. But the higher in elevation you go, the lower that air pressure is. If you’re at 4,000 feet [like Salt Lake City], because there’s less air above you, there’s less air pressure and, therefore, less air resistance. There is a difference is about 3% of air resistance per thousand feet of altitude. If you go up 1,000 feet in elevation, that’s 3% less air resistance. We’re at about 15% less air resistance here at the Utah Olympic Oval, compared to [ovals] at much lower elevations.”

Temperature and Weather

So if Utah’s elevation plays a factor in making fast ice, how do storms and temperature affect everything? Dan says, “Temperature and air pressure are opposite of each other. So as temperature goes up, air pressure and air density go down, and you’re going to have less air resistance. Also, when storms come in, the air pressure drops. So…your best times in speed skating may come on a day when the air pressure is low. If you have a low-pressure storm coming in on a day where there’s some south wind blowing ahead of a cold front, that’s when the lowest pressure would be. That would be the optimal time for racing. [But] when storms…come in—how much do they change pressure? I’m going to say it’s minimal, compared to elevation. As you go up 100 or 200 feet in elevation, you’re actually making a bigger change in air pressure than when a storm comes in.” 

Controlling the Environment

Other factors that affect the quality of the ice are the amount of humidity in the air, the hardness of the ice, and the temperature of the ice itself. Less humidity means better ice. Also, colder, harder ice produces faster times, because there is less resistance. For this reason, the ability to control the environment inside the Utah Olympic Oval is key in maintaining fast ice. Todd Porter, Oval General Manager, says, “There are three systems that work together to make fast ice: the refrigeration component, the ice component—with the makeup of the water, what the Zamboni guys do, and temperature we use for the ice—and then the building component. Here at the Oval, we’re able to shave the ice down and make it really thin.…So when we’re changing refrigeration…from the longer distance races to shorter distances, we can change the temperature of the ice. We can also maintain a certain air temperature inside the building. We’ve learned that if we have it between 65 and 67 degrees in the building, that works the best.

“We also can control the humidity….When there’s water vapor in the air, it settles onto the ice. Ice acts as a magnet, so anything in the air kind of settles onto its surface. That causes a little bit of frost, and that slows the ice down. So any humidity in the building will cause the ice to slow down. Humidity is not a big issue in Utah, but if it were to ever get above 30%, we have four air handlers in the building that are dehumidifiers. [They] kick on as soon as the humidity gets to 30%, to get it back down. During our last World Cup in November 2015, our humidity inside the Oval was around 19%. We try to keep any humidity out that we can.”

How It’s Done

The humidity, air temperature, and ice temperature inside the Oval are all controlled by computers. Todd says, “The computer system we have in the building…controls the environment in the sense that there are certain points and parameters that it keeps the building at. Much like your thermostat at home—you set it, it goes on at a certain point, and it shuts off at a certain point. We have the same thing on a bigger scale here. Like with the humidity—if it gets above 30%, all the dehumidifiers kick on, and they bring the humidity down really quick. We also set the temperature inside the building and the ice temperature within a certain area, and the pumps and the motors all run off of those settings. If anything goes above and beyond the parameters of what we set, I’ll get a phone call, and my opps guy will get a phone call. Then we can come in and manually fix, or figure out, what’s going on. But the system itself basically runs and will change temperatures, based on the parameters we’ve put into it.”
 
Different Ice for Long Track Speed Skating Versus Short Track

The ice inside the Oval is maintained at different levels of hardness, depending on short track versus long track. Todd says, “Short track, long track, figure skating, hockey—they all like their own ice special. The ice at the Oval is the thinnest for long track skaters. It needs to be a little thicker for short track skaters, because they really rut it up and drive it.” Garth Linder, a Starting Official for U.S. Speedskating says, “They don’t worry so much about shaving the ice in short track as thin as they do for long track, because world record speed isn’t the primary factor—it’s about who finishes first. The biggest factor with short track is getting stable ice—keeping it so it’s not brittle. [Skaters] are pulling 3 ½ to 4 G’s in those corners. There’s so much pressure that if that ice is layered and it’s fracturing out, it shatters. That’s the purpose of putting warm water on the track before they race, because it softens up the top layer of ice, so it makes a better turning grip, if you will.”

Different Requirements for Different Distances

Even within long track itself, different ice is required for different speed skating races. Garth says, “Skaters want the ice different temperatures for the different distances. It’s only a 2 or 3 degree change, but it makes a difference in how the skaters perform. The longer distances want the ice harder, because it glides better, and they get less resistance. But the sprinters want the ice softer, because it needs to have more grip. Their…speed is more based on power, whereas the long distance skaters are more based on technique and glide. At the World Cup in November 2015, it was a big challenge for the Oval staff, because they had the 10,000m race on the same day that they had the 500m race.” Todd adds, “Our concern was that we wouldn’t have enough time to warm up the ice [between] the distance races and the shorter races. It was a tough schedule, but…what we did was make the ice colder for the 500’s than we normally do, and it seemed like the skaters were able to handle it.” Over the course of the entire World Cup, Todd and his crew “still produced the ice that got four world records. We’ve gotten to the point where, no matter what’s happening outside, it doesn’t have any effect on what we can do inside the building.”


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