When I was very young I often rode eight hours in the car from Buffalo to New York City and back. On one particular trip I became very bored and decided to wave my hand out the window of the speeding car. After feeling the whoosh of wind on my arm, (for some reason no one will ever understand), I thought it would be a great idea to hold my favorite toy, Dennis the bunny, out the window as well. Needless to say, this didn’t go well. Dennis flew into highway obscurity, and I screamed and cried for my dad to turn around and retrieve him for several hours. I had to make peace with dear Dennis’ departure that day, but I also learned something. Wind can be very powerful.
Since my family has never let me live this story down, I’ve never forgotten how strong the wind was that day. It makes me wonder how anyone can handle that force. Olympic skiers, for example, deal with wind speeds that fast every time they ski. Those athletes compete with that force head-on (literally), and I have to wonder about the energy it takes to stand up to that. It amazes me that downhill skiers can reach speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. Most wind turbines will shut down to protect against damage at speeds that fast.
With the Sochi Winter Olympics right around the corner I have plenty of opportunity to watch downhill skiing – one of my favorite events of the Olympics. While I will never be an Olympic skier myself (I’ve never been graceful on the slopes) I love watching the sport, and pondering the science behind it.
To perfect aerodynamic performance, many top athletes train in manmade wind tunnels. It takes an extraordinary amount of energy to mimic the real-world wind force experienced by downhill skiers. A wind tunnel that mimics the speed of downhill skiing is operating at a very low speed. Even so, the giant fans and motors required to create such speeds cost thousands of dollars in operating costs, including electricity. So, training for the Olympic event is not cheap by any means.
Skiers must understand and take full advantage of the physics of their sport. Aerodynamics is the key to the speed they need to succeed. The right posture, angles, fabrics, and even safety gear all play a part in decreasing wind resistance, which improves speed dramatically. Posture is one of the most important elements. Wind speeds of 70-90 mph are more than enough to blow a standing person to the ground (74 mph winds constitute a category 1 hurricane). Adjusting center of gravity and assuming a streamlined position allows skiers to reach much higher speeds without falling. This isn’t easy though. Implementing the techniques they learn in the wind tunnel on the slopes requires a lot of energy. Downhill skiing burns an estimated 223 calories in 30 minutes for a 155 lb person. All that maneuvering and positioning to achieve maximum speed is a workout. In fact, that amount of activity is equivalent to an energy output of almost a quarter of a kilowatt hour!
Wind is a strong force for turning generating turbines, and ripping beloved childhood keepsakes from the hands of misguided six-year-olds. When we look at how skiers must face the force of wind, we see that it challenges us and makes us burn more energy to combat it. I admire the skiers who will represent their countries at this year’s Winter Olympics, and I wish them all good luck, and good speed.
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