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Park City students learn science of snow sports

Published: Thursday, March 27 2014 6:15 p.m. MDT

PARK CITY — Utah is home to the greatest snow on Earth and some of the greatest winter sport athletes in the world.

But Thursday, students in Park City were presented with the science behind skiing and snowboarding, from the friction that slows them down in a race to the gravitational force that brings them crashing to the ground.

"They do flips, they do jumps, they go over gaps and they ski down slopes, and the slopes push back at them," said Rich Ingebretsen, associate dean of the University of Utah College of Science. "That’s all wonderful science."

Ingebretsen described skiing and snowboarding as a perfect blend of science and sport. He said Utahns are constantly performing science on the slopes, which provides an opportunity to help students better understand the scientific forces at work during their play.

"There is simply no better way to teach science than through the practical aspects of the events that (students) are doing," Ingebretsen said. "In the classroom, you can show pictures and you can do the math on the board. But how cool is it to get some of the greatest skiers of all time on the stage and then show how physics makes possible what they do?"

Thursday's "Physics of Freestyle" event, held at the Eccles Center at Park City High School, included demonstrations by former Olympians Erik Schlopy and Trace Worthington, as well as Scott Marland, chairman of the National Ski Patrol. Their presentations touched on the science behind avalanche rescue equipment and the physical properties at work in ski racing and freestyle events.

After each presentation, scientists from the University of Utah demonstrated the scientific concepts on stage, and freestyle athletes performed on trampolines.

Marland, who spoke on avalanche rescue, said sliding snowpack operates under the theory of granular congestion or inverse segregation, where larger particles are pushed upward while smaller particles sink. The airbags that some skiers wear in backcountry terrain are designed to keep a person floating on the surface of the snow, he said.

"Hopefully, when you’re taking that ride down, it shifts you to the top," Marland said.

He also demonstrated an AvaLung sling, or wearable air tube, that prevents a person buried under snow from exhaling carbon dioxide into the space in front of their mouth.

"This can increase your life expectancy from about 15 minutes to 58 minutes," Marland said.

Schlopy, who coached members of the U.S. Ski Team during the recent Sochi Olympics, talked to students about the centrifugal, centripetal and gravitational forces pulling on a skier during a race. But when even a fraction of a second difference counts, the most important force a skier encounters is the friction that slows them down, he said.

"Friction is the king of forces in ski racing," Schlopy said.

Skiers and snowboards instinctively modify their posture for aerodynamics, he said, but being aware of the air resistance around them can help improve performance.

"If you want to take it to the next level in ski racing, the science behind it is so important to understand," Schlopy said.

Finn Debaun, a skier and ninth-grade student at the Winter Sports School, said he sometimes thinks about the physics involved in his sport, but Thursday's event presented him with new ideas he can use on the slopes.

"If I’m about to over-rotate, you really have to try and slow yourself down," he said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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