Climate change paints a depressing picture for future Winter Olympics

Where’s the snow? Photo credit: Tingshu Wang / Reuters.

By Anders Lorenzen

The Winter Olympics started in China on the 4th of February, have been presenting stark warnings about how climate change has started to impact the Olympic Games.

Climate change has already made it challenging to find the right location for the summer Games and the winter Games are even tougher to host as snow and ice must be guaranteed.

Fake snow

This is the first winter Games to use almost 100% artificial snow – painting an image of the future of the Winter Olympics in a warming world. The organisers have deployed more than 100 snow generators and 300 snow-cannons which are working flat out to cover the ski slopes. However, the environmental impacts of these artificial methods are huge: “This is not only energy and water-intensive, frequently using chemicals to slow melt, but also delivers a surface that many competitors say is unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” a report said written by researchers from the Sport Ecology Group at Loughborough University in England and the Protect Our Winters environment group.

The report outlines how climate change is threatening the Winter Olympics and the future of snow sports by making conditions much more dangerous for athletes and participants. 

To counter these arguments the Beijing organising committee has issued a sustainability report saying the Games’ “smart snowmaking system” uses 20% less water than traditional methods. They have also sought to counter fears that the Games will put pressure on local water supplies by saying they will rely for their snowmaking on mountain runoff and rainfall collected during the summer. 

Goodbye to winter sports?

It is of course not only in China that ‘snow guarantee’ is becoming more unpredictable.  The report’s research is showing that climate change has meant natural snow was becoming less plentiful in many regions of the world and is also reducing the amount of water available for artificial snow, putting the global snow sports industry at risk. The report further stated: “Navigating erratic snow seasons and rapid melt of low-level resorts are now the norm for many competitors. The risk is clear: man-made warming is threatening the long-term future of winter sports. It is also reducing the number of climatically suitable host venues for the Winter Olympiad.”

Sören Ronge, a campaigner at Protect Our Winters Europe, said about the findings: “If no action is taken to reduce climate change, many regions will have to say goodbye to winter sports in the long run. Resorts at lower altitudes will feel this first and many have already been forced to close.”.

The researchers explained that of the 21 venues used for the Winter Games since the French resort of Chamonix hosted the first one in 1924, by 2050, only 10 will have the “climate suitability” and natural snowfall levels to host an event. Symbolically, Chamonix itself is now rated “high risk” along with venues in Norway, France and Austria, while Vancouver in Canada, Sochi in Russia and Squaw Valley in the US are all deemed “unreliable”.

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