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Climate change poses a threat to future Winter Olympic games

The Shougang Big Air venue will host freestyle skiing and snowboarding. — © AFP
The Shougang Big Air venue will host freestyle skiing and snowboarding. — © AFP

Rising temperatures caused by the escalating climate crisis mean future Winter Olympics will struggle to find host cities with enough snow and ice, according to a study.

Unless the world can make drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, on the current trajectory, by the 2080s all but one of the 21 cities that previously hosted the Winter Games – Sapporo, Japan – would not be able to do so again.

This is the finding of a study published in the journal Current Issue in Tourism. “No sport can escape the impacts of a changing climate. Achieving the Paris agreement targets is critical to saving snow sports as we know it and ensuring there are places across the world to host the Winter Olympics,” said Daniel Scott, a researcher at the University of Surrey and lead author of the study.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games, which begin February 4 in Beijing, China will be the first to rely entirely on artificial snow, per Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt. China may need as much as 2 million cubic meters of water—enough to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools to create enough fake snow for this year’s Games.

Artificial snow is not all that it’s cracked up to be, either. Lesley McKenna, the three-time Olympic snowboarder for Team GB, has seen huge changes in ski resort snowpack and glacier cover in the past 30 years, according to The Guardian.

“The changes are really concerning on many levels,” she said. “The weather and snow are way less consistent now than they were at the start of my career. Plans have to be very flexible if a team is to make it to the best training locations. Everything then becomes more exclusive and more resource heavy and this doesn’t help anyone, or the climate either.”

Rosie Brennan, a U.S. Olympic cross-country skier, said race organizers rely on technology to work around the climate impact – with varied results, reports NPR.org.

“I think the thing that we see now is with warmer weather, there’s less snowfall, so we’re much more reliant on man-made snow,” she told NPR. “And man-made snow doesn’t act the same as natural snow. It tends to be much firmer, it gets icier faster and it’s a faster surface.”

That has resulted in devastating injuries to athletes – normally a rarity for Brennan’s sport, she said. “I think we have seen that in the last few years there’s been a number of World Cup races where people have broken bones from crashing,” she said.

Polish athlete to leave hospital after Winter Olympics track accident
Mateusz Sochowicz, who was injured in luge track crash in Beijing, finished 27th at the last Winter Olympics – Copyright AFP MARK RALSTON

How the study was conducted

Researchers used a survey completed by 339 elite-level athletes and coaches to devise four climatic indicators that predict fair and safe conditions for snow sports competitions: unacceptably high or low temperatures, rain, wet snow, and poor snow coverage.

The researchers found that 94 percent in the survey fear climate change will impact the future of their sport. The survey also showed that the frequency of unfair and unsafe conditions had increased over the past 50 years in locations where the Winter Olympics were previously held, and that this trend was likely to continue.

The impact of poor conditions was illustrated by the Alpine Ski World Cup in Zagreb in January. A lack of snow and high temperatures forced organizers to cancel the men’s slalom event after only 19 racers, but not before the French Olympic bronze medalist, Victor Muffat-Jeandet crashed and injured his ankle.

There may come a point when outdoor games may have to move indoors or be held at a different time of year altogether in order to accommodate higher temperatures, says Scott.

And that will be really sad…

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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