How are ice castles maintained throughout the winter?

How are ice castles maintained throughout the winter?

If you've visited ice castles this season, you know how massive the structures are, and if you've recently visited on any day where highs were in the upper 40s with intense Colorado sunshine, you may be wondering how all that ice hasn't melted and still looks like it did in Early January.

The answer: maintenance, lots of it, every day. We spoke with Clay Davis who runs the Cripple Creek venue to walk us through what they do.

Every night they add water to the castles and many snowflakes. In the morning, they use a rolling saw-like machine to clean and cut the floor of the place – going from a clean layer of ice to a very smooth consistency that you can walk on when you visit. They also manually remove snowflakes that are too low or may pose a danger to visitors. They use saws and chisels to adjust fine elements using hand tools for carvings.

When you think about everything they have to consider in terms of weather, you really appreciate the planning required.

First – look at the sun. At the same time of day, on the same day of year, it is 40% stronger in Cripple Creek than at sea level, and 15% stronger than it is along the Front Range Corridor. The higher you go – the air pressure decreases. With less atmosphere in the Sun's path, more of its energy reaches Earth. When intense sunlight hits ice and snow it produces sublimation – turning the ice directly into a gas. Normally, ice melts – changing from solid to liquid. But, when they hit the ice with a large amount of light energy, that energy can turn directly into gas, even when temperatures are below freezing. This is also why we lose snow so quickly in our state, even when temperatures are below freezing. The sun simply evaporates ice and snow. No need to thaw.

The Ice Castles team constantly replenishes the castles' water by spraying them with water in the evening, whenever the day is sunny and warm.

Davis told us that when choosing a location, they look for locations with dry air and relatively consistent, stable conditions. This may not be what you expect – why would they want dry air? Moist air tends to promote ice growth, Davis said. That's a bad thing, in this case. To keep the castles looking the same, they want to be able to shape them themselves – adding water only when and where they need it, without nature creating changes in the shape of the ice.

But it may surprise you to learn that the castles themselves don't actually require as much attention as you think. Davis said:
“Once we get to a certain level, height and size with these structures…they actually sustain themselves because of their thermal mass.”

In other words, the massive, multi-ton ice structures have enough “cold” in them to be more or less able to withstand all the weather concerns mentioned above. Water contains a lot of energy, which is why it takes a long time to boil water on the stove. When you're talking about several tons of it, it's not going to melt over a few warm days.

The Ice Castles will be open until March 2, with tickets available on their website.


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