Climate Change Threatens the Future of the Winter Olympics

Many of the event's recent venues will soon be too warm for snow.

A couple of months before the Winter Olympics kicked off in Sochi, Russian organizers called upon shamans to pray for snow. During the snowy opening ceremonies, it seemed that their prayers had been answered, but the Winter Games haven't seen a flake since (see photos).

Temperatures in the host city on the Black Sea haven't dropped below 40°F (4°C) since the third day of competition and have topped 60°F (16°C) on at least three days. When competition wraps up, the 2014 games will likely surpass Vancouver 2010 as the warmest Winter Olympics ever.

While the head-scratching decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the games in a subtropical resort town is likely as responsible as global warming for the balmy conditions—temperatures this month in Sochi are close to average—a recent report suggests that climate change is poised to make the slushy, temperate traits of the Sochi games an ongoing challenge in siting and hosting future Winter Olympics.

In fact, by midcentury, past Olympic venues like Squaw Valley, California; Oslo, Norway; Chamonix, France; and—of course—Sochi, will be too warm to ever host the Winter Games again.

Warming and the Winter Games

Daniel Scott, the Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo, has been studying the relationship between sports, recreation, and the environment for a couple of decades. His research came to life back in 2010 when his nation hosted what were then the warmest Winter Olympics ever, in Vancouver.

"In Vancouver, El Niño came at the wrong time and they had to helicopter in snow," said Scott. "That got us asking, Are places like this really suitable to hosting the games?"

Scott and his team first looked at all of the 19 past Winter Olympic host cities to see what impact weather had on them.

"Weather has always been an important part of the games," said Scott. Over the decades, organizers "have developed all these weather risk management strategies."

In 1968, the Austrian army famously carted snow up in backpacks to save the ski races in Innsbrook. In Sapporo, Japan, in 1972, the luge and bobsled tracks were refrigerated for the first time. Skiers first carved down artificial, man-made snow at the 1988 games in Calgary, Canada. In Vancouver, they used helicopters to drop some emergency snowpack. Russian Olympic planners buried half a million cubic meters of snow under refrigerated blankets for a whole year.

"But we're seeing the limits of those weather risk management strategies being tested, in Vancouver and now in Sochi," said Scott. "So now we look forward. What are the implications of projected climate change at the 19 former host cities?"

Using emissions projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and climate data from the World Meteorological Organization and various national weather agencies, Scott's team forecast what the local climates could look like in the future.

"Right now, all of the past host cities were deemed climate reliable," said Scott. "But by midcentury that number drops to about half, and by late century, under the warmer scenarios that number is down to as few as six."

In other words, within the life-span of some of the younger Olympians competing this week, as few as one-third of the cities that have held the Winter Games would still be suitable to host the outdoor events.

To get these results, Scott's team looked at dozens of climatic indicators, and focused on two that best reflected a region's capability to host the outdoor events like alpine skiing, snowboarding, and nordic competitions. By examining the daily minimum average temperatures and the levels of snowpack—from both natural snowfall and man-made snow—Scott and his colleagues could reasonably assess the potential for good, safe ski slopes, halfpipes, and nordic tracks.

"When daily minimum temperatures remain above freezing, snow and ice surfaces do not have the chance to recover from greater daytime melt, creating soft and slow surfaces," the report states.

As Scott put it: "Can you have enough snow for the events? And is it cold enough to have good conditions on that snow?"

Of all 19 past host cities, only Albertville, France; Calgary; Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy; St. Moritz, Switzerland; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Sapporo will be able to answer yes to those questions by 2080, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as they now are.

Athletes Speak Out

Having endured two straight Olympics with warmer-than-ideal conditions, athletes are starting to worry publicly about the future of their respective sports.

During the first week of the Sochi games, 105 Olympians released a statement in partnership with the climate change advocacy group Protect Our Winters.

Andrew Newell, the American cross-country skier who penned the petition, wrote, "Snow conditions are becoming much more inconsistent, weather patterns more erratic, and what was once a topic for discussion is now reality and fact. Our climate is changing and we are losing our winters."

Newell added, "This year alone, nearly half of the FIS cross country World Cup international competitions have taken place on artificial snow. Even last year in Sochi, several pre-Olympic skiing and snowboarding events had to be canceled because of poor conditions, something that has been a consistent problem both in Central Europe and Scandinavia."

Kyle Tress, a U.S. skeleton racer, considers climate change to be an existential threat to his sport and other outdoor Winter Games. Writing in an email from Sochi, Tress said, "I often think about the future of the sliding sports, and the possibility that rising global temperatures and the increasing cost of building and maintaining venues will result in their elimination from the Olympic and World Cup programme.

"It's not just skeleton that's in danger," he added, going on to cite Scott's study. "Rising temperatures could significantly reduce the number of candidate cities [that] can host the Games, putting the entire winter sport community in jeopardy. For many niche winter sports, the Olympics represent our only chance to step onto the stage and introduce ourselves to the world. We need to be aware of the possibility that this future is in danger."

Through the petition and their public comments, athletes are calling for broad, transformative government commitments on climate change. But in the nearer term, they need the IOC to do a better job factoring climate—and climate change—into their host city selection process. The IOC claims, in a formal evaluation report of potential 2014 sites, that "increasing consideration will have to be given and comprehensive operations and contingency plans and adaptation strategies formulated by Bid Committees and Games organisers in regard to the effects of global warming."

But the same document found that temperatures and average snow depths for Sochi were both "satisfactory," a claim that most of the outdoor competitors over the past two weeks would scoff at

As the Olympians return home from Sochi next week, many will set their sights on Pyeongchang, South Korea, host of the 2018 games. And though he hasn't examined it closely yet, Scott is "not sure that [conditions in] South Korea will be much better" than those in the past few Winter Games.

Follow Ben Jervey on Twitter and Google+.

Read This Next

Orelle Valley: France's 'secret' ski resort
Freeride: perfect your ski skills in Swiss resort of Engelberg
The best winter sports gear for 2023

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet