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Beijing’s scant snow offers a glimpse at the uncertainty — and risks — of future Winter Olympics

Beijing’s scant snow offers a glimpse at the uncertainty — and risks — of future Winter Olympics

A poster of the Olympic bobsled run in Lake Placid.

Postcards and posters from the Winter Olympics draw attention to the thick powdered and ice-covered mountains that we can expect from winter mountain sports. This year will be a little bit different.

A poster of the Olympic bobsled run in Lake Placid.

Many Winter Olympics think of snow-covered mountains, forests, and hills.
(Library of Congress).

Some of the athletes have posted social media messagesTraining at Yanqing, 75 kms northwest of Beijing, shows a thin ribbon made of white snow, surrounded by brown hills. Zhangjiakou and Yanqing, which are the two locations for skiing, snowboarding and bobsledding events, lack natural snowfall. Beijing 2022 is the result. First Winter Olympics entirely on machine-made snow.

But as temperatures continue to rise globally, it’s also a glimpse at what future Winter Olympics might look like. All winter sports face climate change.

Popular summer training venues, such as Whistler’s Horstman glacier, are rapidly melting away and World Cup ski competitions including a Recent slalom event at Zagreb, CroatiaUnusually warm temperatures and dangerous snow conditions have caused the cancellation of these events.

As a climate scientist and former elite ski racer, I’m not only interested in which venues will have enough snow to host races in the future, but whether they will be safe for competitions. While some athletes may choose to skip races that they consider too dangerous for their sport, the Winter Olympics are where the most elite athletes compete in hopes of winning a Gold Medal. One participant in our study observed this., “Who’s going to qualify for the Games and then sit it out?”

Winters unpredictable

Recent Winter Olympics, such as those held in Vancouver and Sochi in 2010, were held at temperatures that were much higher than those seen in other locations over the past century. Games held between 1920 and 1950 had an average February daily temperature of 0.4 C. Average February temperatures rose to 3.1 C in 1960 and 1990. Since the dawn of the 21st Century, Beijing has an average February temperature of 6.3 C.

A skier angles around a gate
Before author Natalie Knowles became a climate scientist, she competed on Canada’s Alpine Ski Team at the World Junior Championships and World University Games, and raced for the University of Denver.
(Natalie Knowles), Author provided

This rapidly rising temperature makes winter less reliable for sports. Artificial snow-making joins indoor icerinks and refrigerated tracks for bobsled racing as an option. essential elementManagement of weather risks for winter sports

Recent Olympics had to resort even with top-of the-line snow-making equipment. Last-minute modificationsYou can do things like build jumps and halfpipes from plywood and hay bales, or cancel pre-competition training.

These improvisations are necessary for the event’s success, but can pose a danger to athletes’ safety and performance. Skiers can run down a mountain at speeds of 150 km/h or more. A snowboarder achieves a triple cork during a superpipeThey expect to compete in fair, consistent, and safe conditions.

Cold temperatures allow for a smooth and firm surface, whereas warm temperatures lead to soft and wet snow that degrades throughout the competition and hinders athletes’ performance. Warm conditions can be beneficial. Increase the chance of injury.

A graphic showing that the ideal temperatures for competition is -10 C to -1 C.

AhtleteCoach rating of temperatures to ensure fair and safe competition
(Natalie Knowles), Author provided

One downhill skier in our study said, “Heat can just create dangerous conditions. Lots of torn knee ligaments happen in sloppy wet snow.” Freestyle snowboarders noted that “too warm is the worst because it makes the course super slushy, the speed slows down and you get a bunch of Bomb holes in the landings, which are unsafe.” Nordic skiers added dehydration and heat stroke as additional risks from hot temperatures.

Warm temperatures can also compromise integrity of the competition. The first competitor may have a smooth track surface, while the 30th to 50th competitor will have to deal with the bumps and ruts created by the previous competitors.

Gold-medal venue: Sapporo

Previous research used climate thresholds, including minimum snow coverage and maximum temperatures, to identify whether it would be feasible to hold a Winter Olympics at a former venue in the future — that is whether a venue could operate under warmer conditions.

Ratings by the Athlete-Coach of conditions that impact competition safety or fairness.
(Natalie Knowles), Author provided

My colleagues and me went further. We considered the perspectives of 339 athletes, coaches and officials from 20 different countries to determine if a venue could hold a safe, fair and fair competition in a warmer climate.

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We also included more nuanced and qualitative characteristics such as rain, wind, fog, and machine-made snow. Additionally, we considered common adaptations like changing course starts, cancelling training, or chemically treating snow to maintain winter-like conditions. These climate thresholds were modeled using the input of coaches and athletes in order to determine which locations would be viable in the future.

These results are both alarming and encouraging. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise under a so-called “business as usual” scenario, only one former Olympic host, Sapporo, Japan, will remain a reliable place to host outdoor winter sports by 2080.

However, if we can reduce global emission to reach the Paris Agreement target for 2 C by following low emissions pathways, eight of 21 former Winter Olympic sites will continue to have the cold temperatures required for elite-level snow sports.

Maps of North America, Europe and Asia showing past Olympic sites and whether they are reliable, marginal or unreliable sites under future emissions scenarios.
Winter Olympic hosts are climate-reliable for safe and fair snow sports competitions.
(Natalie Knowles), Author provided

Beacon for hope

Some sporting events, like international ski and snowboard championships require only one or two sports to be successful. There are many adaptation options, such a postponement or change of venue at the last moment. The Olympics are scheduled years in advance and there is little chance to alter or delay competitions.

A black and white photo of a man skiing.

Mike Lafferty from the U.S Olympic Team trains on the Mt. Eniwa track at Sapporo 1972 Winter Olympics, Japan.
(AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz)

Although the Winter Olympics’ fate may seem to be low on the agenda, as news about climate-related disasters flood the news, the Olympics are still a beacon of hope. The Olympics are a beacon of hope. International Olympic CommitteeIt has demonstrated climate leadership among sporting groups to achieve carbon neutrality Sport can be used to unify people around the world for climate action.

However, competing in the Olympics may be more similar to addressing climate change than we think. Both require incredible feats in strength, endurance, and ingenuity to overcome obstacles.



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