If You Build a Seventy-Foot-Tall Hunk of Ice, Will They Come?

Photo by Josh Parsons

Photo by Josh Parsons

So this winter, as a tourist attraction, someone wants to create a seven-million-pound, seventy-foot-tall block of ice right near the building where I work. What could possibly go wrong?

Said person is Roger Hanson, a computer software developer who hails from Big Lake, Minn. He’s been forming huge hunks of ice in his back yard since 2007.

Perhaps hearing that we were nervous, Roger recently came to our office bearing donuts and information. He said he started his hobby because he’s a hoarder. He has a geothermal heating system at his house that creates wastewater. He didn’t want to just dump the water into the river that runs nearby, so he got the idea of using his computer and technical skills to build an ice formation with it. He’s built some impressive ones that have garnered local and national media attention.

He uses a computer-controlled robotic water sprayer and metal cables to create the structures. And like any good hoarder, his piles of ice keep getting bigger every year. I think he reached 64 feet last year.

This year, he’s moving outside of his back yard for the first time, onto Barker’s Island in Superior, Wis. The island is man-made, composed of sand and soil dredged from the harbor in the late 1800s. The City of Superior, inspired by the unprecedented popularity of the natural ice caves at the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior last year, thinks Roger’s artificial ice formation will make a good tourist attraction. Roger explained that he wasn’t the city’s first choice – they wanted an ice castle builder instead. But those folks had scheduling conflicts. The city has committed Roger to a three-year, $135,000 contract and is advertising for vendors to provide hot chocolate and the like for the masses it hopes the ice will draw.

One of Roger's previous creations by his house.

One of Roger’s previous creations by his house. Photo by Roger Hanson

Roger plans to build his largest formation yet at ninety feet wide and seventy feet tall. Already, he’s learning things and overcoming obstacles. For this endeavor, which he calls the Lake Superior Ice Project, Roger is pumping water out of the Superior Harbor. Although he thought he’d only have to lay one hundred fifty feet of tubing, he laid two hundred fifty feet out into the harbor in order to reach an eight-foot depth of water to be safe from a deep freeze. In the process, he ended up tripping on the tubing and got the cold shock of a dunk in the harbor.

He’s spent the past month setting up. Now the wind and the weather just need to cooperate. He explained that he designed the computer system for the prevailing wind direction for this area. Darn wind has been blowing from elsewhere, and the air temperatures have been too warm for him to begin spraying water for ice.

Roger also mentioned he dropped one of the seismic sensors he brought along that helps him predict when the structure will break up in the spring. He described how huge chunks of ice fall off the formation when it starts to melt. The stress on the structure can be measured with seismic sensors, and when the time between fractures starts getting too short (like labor contractions), Roger knows the thing’s going to blow – something very useful when there may be onlookers who need to be moved away for safety. But never fear, Roger was able to fix the sensor with some ingenuity and PVC pipe.

What the ice formation on Barker's Island looks like now (because the weather is not cooperating).

What the ice formation on Barker’s Island looks like now (because the weather is not cooperating).

If nature cooperates, he hopes to have the formation built by mid-February. He will light it up at night and give periodic tours. The city has a traffic flow plan in place. And although the city is spending thousands of dollars on this project, a city staffer who visited us admitted they have no advertising budget. As was the case with the Apostle Islands ice caves, the city hopes that social and news media will do the advertising for them. Also, the ice formation will be visible from a nearby highway and the city hopes that people driving by will see it and be drawn to it.

So we have a new location, finicky weather, seven million pounds of pressure atop a sandy island, no ad budget, huge blocks of ice calving off the formation, and massive amounts of meltwater come spring: what could possibly go wrong? Nothing, I hope, but stay tuned . . . .

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