WeatherWeather Science


Weather Science: How are the Ice Castles maintained all winter?

Water, chainsaws, and careful attention keep the Ice Castles glistening, and safe, all season long
Posted at 6:59 PM, Feb 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-23 20:59:37-05

If you've visited the Ice Castles this season, you know how large the structures are, and if you've been recently on any day where highs have been in the upper 40s with intense Colorado sunshine, you might be wondering how all of this ice hasn't melted and still looks the way it did in early January.

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

Every night, they add water to the castles, and many icicles. In the morning, they use a machine similar to a rolling chainsaw to groom and chop the floor of the venue - taking it from a clean sheet of ice, to a soft gravely consistency that you walk on when visiting. They also manually remove icicles that are too low or might pose a risk to visitors. They use chainsaws, and chisels, to adjust fine-tuned elements, with hand tools for sculptures.

When you consider everything they have to consider weather-wise, you really appreciate the planning required.

First - consider the sun. For the same time of day, and same day of year, it's 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 lower air pressure gets. With less atmosphere in the way of the sun, more of its energy makes it to the ground. When that intense sunlight hits ice and snow it produces sublimation - changing ice directly into a gas. Normally, ice melts - it goes from a solid to a liquid. But, when you hit ice with a lot 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 the ice and snow. No melting needed.

The Ice Castles team is constantly replenishing the water of the castles, by spraying them with water in the evenings, and whenever they have a sunny and warm day.

Davis told us that when choosing a site, they look for locations with dry air and relatively consistent and stable conditions. This might not be what you expect - why would they want dry air? Davis said that wet air tends to promote ice growth. That's bad, 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 might surprise you to learn that the castles themselves don't actually require as much attention as you'd think. Davis said:
"Once we get to a certain level, height, size with these structures...they actually maintain themselves due to the thermal mass of them".

In other words, massive, multi-ton ice structures, hold enough "cold" in them, to be somewhat resilient to all of the weather concerns above. Water holds a lot of energy - that's why it takes a long time to boil water on the stove. When you're talking about multiple tons of it, it won't melt away with a few warm days.

The Ice Castles will be open through March 2nd, with tickets available at their website.


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