The Death of the Winter Olympics?

Science says: Global warming might kill off the Winter Olympics–at least the way it looks now– in less than 100 years

If you’re looking for an indication that global warming might destroy winter and bring us summer all year long, look no further than this year’s 22nd annual Winter Olympics in Sochi. With the games just days away, Olympic organizers have armed themselves with some 500 snow guns to pump out fake snow–that is, generate an artificial winter climate–in advance of the games.

This isn’t the first time Olympics officials have put the ‘winter’ in Winter Olympics the manufactured way (In fact, Olympic organizers first started pumping faux snow at the 1988 winter games in Calgary). And it certainly won’t be the last. According to researchers stationed in Canada and Austria, global warming may melt away Winter Games–at least in their current state–in the next one hundred years.

In a recent study, scientists at Canada’s University of Waterloo and at Austria’s Management Center in Innsbruck evaluated the past 19 Winter Olympics sites for their climate-based “reliability” as host destinations. They took note of two indicating climate factors: the sites’ minimum temperatures in February and the sites’ base levels of snow (known as a “snowpack”).

With the help of data on global warming from a June 2013 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations organization, and assistance from the World Meteorological Organization, the researchers were able to predict just how functional the 19 destinations might be as sites if used again in the future.

The result: At best 11 of the 19 sites could serve as future sites of the Winter Olympics. The reason: global warming. The scientists grouped the sites into three loos categories: Sites which would be reliable for snow in the future (snow problem), sites which were climatically risky (snow flakey) and ones which would become definitively unreliable for snow cover in the future (snow way).

“In the shorter term, picking locations like Vancouver and Sochi–those much warmer than previous locations– might actually be fortuitous on the part of the International Olympic Committee,” says Daniel Scott, professor at the University of Waterloo and one of the study’s chief researchers. “By mid century, they might not be climatically suitable.”

Beginning in the year 2050, the Winter Olympics could not feasibly take place in Sochi, Grenoble (site of the 1968 Olympics), Garmisch-Partenkirchen (site of the 1936 Olympics) or Chamonix (site of the 1934 Olympics), even if the lowest levels of greenhouse gases, as predicted by the IPCC) entered the atmosphere.

Scott notes that many Winter Olympics activities (see: figure skating) have skirted global warming issues by moving indoors. He also highlights our increasing reliance on refrigeration techniques to maintain the integrity of sports such as ski jumping, bobsledding and luge (Jumps and tracks are kept frozen before use). It’s the Olympics’ outdoor activities–alpine and nordic skiing– that are at greatest risk as global warming continues to strike.

For reasons of capacity, elevation and climate, some cities will no longer be viable host sites. Nordic and alpine skiing will have to be cut from the games, or revolutionized or relocated to slopes farther away from the competition’s host cities. Colder destinations at higher elevations will prove to be more reliable sites than those with maritime climates.

(Sochi, a resort town where the average February temperature is 40° F, is one such site with a maritime climate. Olympic officials are relying on 710,000 cubic meters of snow leftover and stored from last year to coat Sochi’s slopes this year.)

The real question, Scott says, isn’t how much snow will fall in the future. Instead, he argues, it’s: “Is it going to be sufficiently cold so that I can make snow?”

Asked which new destinations might serve as dependable host cities, Scott points to sites in Northern China, Scandinavia and Finland, along with already-used cities that will prove climatically viable in 2080: Abertvile, Calgary, Cortina d’Ampezzo, St. Moritz, Salt Lake City and Sapporo. These cities, the data suggests, will be reliable for the games even if the highest levels of greenhouse gases saturate the atmosphere.

While the researcher says “the day will never come” that the Winter Olympics will be cut entirely, the IOC will increasingly need to evaluate the climatic conditions of cities when analyzing their Olympic bids. Finding the right city–large enough to accommodate fans, athletes and media, in possession of the right sort of terrain and altitude, maintaining cold enough temperatures for snow production–will prove difficult.

“In a substantially warmer world,” the researchers write, “celebrating the second centennial of the Olympic Winter Games in 2124 would be challenging.”

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