Sixth sense for snow and ice

Blanketed with snow and ice, Lapland lies at the heart of endless forests interrupted by lakes. In this landscape, winter is the prevailing season. Living and working here requires coming to terms with the extreme conditions.

Birte Mußmann (copy) & Jan Van Endert (photo)

Lay of the land: Lapland is spread across Sweden, Finland and Russia. Sparsely populated, the region is renowned for its sub-Arctic wilderness and natural phenomena, such as the midnight sun and northern lights.

In the early morning hours, it’s still darkest night. You can barely see past the end of your nose. And it’s bitterly cold. Temperatures are well below freezing point. Winter has arrived. Up in the far north, in the Swedish part of Lapland, this is already the case as early as October—the time that also marks the start of the high season for preparing the automotive testing grounds in this region. The harsh climatic conditions coupled with a geology shaped by mountainsides and endless lakes are ideal for testing vehicles. Against this backdrop of snow and ice, new and different test tracks* are created afresh each year on firm terrain and frozen lakes. One of these enormous ice fields belongs to where the brand with the four rings tests its latest models in the extreme cold before they go into production. Every piece of a vehicle—technologies and components alike—must also be able to withstand extreme conditions.

In the dark morning hours, the tracks’ contours can barely be made out. Every now and then, two pairs of headlights illuminate the white surface. They belong to the heavy machinery used by the on-site experts to prepare the tracks. Lenny is one of them. He is responsible for the ice on the frozen lake. The native Swede grew up in the area and was already helping to prepare tracks of this kind in his youth. Now in his mid-thirties, he has acquired a profound insight into the job. As for the extreme climate, it’s something he has known since childhood. “We have very long winters around here. Summer is generally confined to June, July and August.

Ice specialist: Lenny grew up in a small village adjacent to the testing grounds. At the tender age of 16, he began devoting himself to preparing the test tracks. His favorite time of year is summer. His working hours are shorter then and he can enjoy quietly pursuing his hobby—fishing. Year in, year out, Lenny and the rest of the team use GPS devices to ensure that exactly the same track formation is recreated and always optimally prepared. It’s a job that keeps the team on the go around the clock during winter. Employees work shifts throughout the day and night.

The rest of the year can be pretty cold. Daytime temperatures of -20 to -25°C are fairly typical. Even snow in May is not uncommon,” says Lenny. You can tell that winter plays a dominant role in the far north by the fact that there is more than one term for the cold, dark months: “Here in northern Sweden, we have an additional season—spring-winter. In the local Sami language, it’s ‘gidádálvve.’ This is the period from March through April—in other words, the months in which the days begin to lengthen and the temperatures slowly start to rise.” Little by little, nature reawakens. The meter-high layers of snow blanketing the forests melt away, slowly allowing the greenery of firs and trees to come to the fore. A curious scene plays out on the frozen lake during a thaw, because the tracks’ dense, compacted ice is the last to melt. As a result, the circuits float for quite some time on the water until they eventually disappear completely.

But before gidádálvve arrives—bringing the winter tests to a close—the track makers are kept busy. Distributed over several shifts, a team of about 35 work around the clock to ensure that the circuits built on snow and ice are optimally prepared for the tests. A lot depends on the weather. Lenny explains: “To get the best, most stable ice to form, we need very cold temperatures without snow. Temperature fluctuations during this period make for ideal conditions. The result is compact ice that can bear heavy loads. Snow makes things more difficult because it acts as an insulating layer that inhibits ice formation. Over recent years, we have seen increasing snowfalls. Not great news, from our perspective.” Even so, sooner or later the ice sheet builds up into a massive layer. “In deepest winter, the ice is about 90 centimeters deep. It’s very stable and can support vehicles that weigh as much as 25 tons. To determine the thickness of the ice, we drill holes or use special radar measuring devices.” At the same time, the pressure mounts because the timeframes for conducting the vehicle tests are growing ever shorter. This is due to the combined effects of a push for cost efficiency and competiveness together with technological advances.

Good to know: If, when driving through Lapland outside built-up areas, you notice black trash bags tied to trees, wooden poles or something similar, keep your eyes peeled. These are used to signal the presence of reindeer in the area. The animals move around in winter searching for the best feeding grounds in the woods. Since they are always on the move, signs alerting people to them also need to be mobile.

“Naturally, everyone wants to get onto the test circuit as early in the season as possible. But here, the weather writes the rulebook. And there’s nothing we can do about it. If the conditions aren’t right, we can’t open the tracks. Safety always has to be the highest priority.” Even if it’s impossible to predict the exact date, the lakes will ultimately freeze. As soon as the ice sheet is about ten centimeters thick, preparations for the season can begin. Initially, the team only uses lightweight machinery, such as snowmobiles, on the lake. Later, the heavyweights, including snow blowers and plows, are put into action.

To achieve the best conditions, Lenny and his team sometimes have to get creative: “Before the start of the last season, the lake was completely covered in snow, so we needed to come up with a plan. We manually bored holes in the ice so that the water could reach the surface. The snow-blanketed ice sheet sank a bit lower and was essentially ‘flooded’. Although we didn’t do an actual count, we knew based on the lake’s surface area that we needed about 10,000 holes. Using water is a regular feature of our work, although it doesn’t usually require quite such extensive measures.” Lenny’s father came up with the idea. He, too, is an expert on snow and ice. In fact, as a resident of Lapland, it’s almost impossible not to be. It would indeed be going against the grain considering that a love of nature is very much part of the locals’ DNA. That probably has a lot to do with the region’s endless expanses of verdant forests, lakes and mountains—whether blanketed in snow or not.

*These tracks are closed to the public and prepared exclusively for the purposes of testing vehicles.
Combined electric power consumption in kWh/100 km (62.1 mi)*: 26.2 - 22.5 (WLTP); 24.6 - 23.7 (NEFZ) 
CO2 emissions combined in g/km (g/mi): 0
(* Figures depending on the chosen equipment level)
Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO2 emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide “Information on the fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and energy consumption of new cars”, which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH, Hellmuth-Hirth-Strasse 1, D-73760 Ostfildern, Germany and at