What's up with that powdery stuff, anyway?

Updated: February 14, 2006, 5:49 PM ET
By Brian Church | Special to ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- As New York stakes its claim to host the Winter Olympics for the next 100 years, what do we actually know about snow?

You can't have a Winter Games without snow, period. Look at the Torino mascots, Neve the Snowball and Gliz the Ice Cube.

Brian Church/ESPN.comA typical day at the office: Armstrong takes part in the 50-km race at the 2001 Masters World Cup in Mariazellerland, Austria.

I turned to Dr. Richard Armstrong for help. He is a snow expert I think is from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and might well be based at the University of Colorado (read his job description in this link: Where the hell does Dr. Richard Armstrong work?).

Nervous at first, the good doctor confessed he wasn't too sure "how to do snow satire." This guy is really cool and, looking at his photo, I suspect he's Harrison Ford's stunt double. And he's an athlete, having participated in 50-kilometer Nordic marathon events.

The senior research scientist has an expertise in "seasonal snow cover," so my first question could only be ...

Is snow always white?
It should be. As pollutants increase in the modern world, snow becomes less and less white. Where we are in Colorado, if we have a southwest storm with a strong southwest wind, the winds will carry dust and deposit it on the snow cover, and it is a noticeable difference.

That's not because you drink a lot in the Rocky Mountains?
It's definitely from the dust.

Can you make snow?
As long as you have nighttime temperatures that are a few degrees below freezing, you can make snow. If you have enough water at your disposal and enough machinery, you can generate enough of it to create more at night than melts during the day.

If you don't do it exactly right, is there a danger of spectators drowning the next day?
You wouldn't put out quite that much water. You can imagine that if the compressors were left unattended overnight, you could wash some things away. If things go awry and a pipe broke, it'd be a worse situation than just having no snow.

I always thought artificial snow was where you pumped out pieces of white paper?
That's Hollywood, it's hard to ski on.

Is it possible to trigger a real snowstorm?
You can't trigger a real storm, but you can enhance the snowfall coming from that storm [by seeding]. The storm has to be coming your way. If the storm isn't coming your way, you're out of luck.

Is there a danger there'll be so much snow we won't be able to see the skiers as they come down the slopes?
The irony for competition is you want some snow, but then you want it to stop.

If you're caught in an avalanche, what's the best way to get away: helicopter or taxi?
Given the probability of a taxi driving that way, I'd pick a helicopter.

What's the best thing for a skier to hit head-on: Soft ice or hard snow?
Well, ice doesn't get very soft and snow can get pretty hard.

Do you enjoy playing with snow? I mean the real snow, not drugs.
It totally intrigues me.

Where the hell does Dr. Richard Armstrong work?
CIRES -- which stands for Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences -- is an institute within the University of Colorado. The cooperative is cooperative with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), so there's a series, or network, of institutes within the university that are simply research groups that aren't associated with a particular academic department but that, by way of what we call soft money, have generated funding support for various research projects. Then, within the large institute CIRES, which is about 500 people, we have a group of glaciologists -- people who study snow and ice -- and the NSIDC is the National Snow and Ice Data Center, so it's a center underneath the institute CIRES.

Brian Church is a columnist with the Athens News in Greece. He will be contributing to ESPN.com throughout the Olympics.