Cold facts: Climate change limiting Olympic host cities
Wednesday, February 19, 2014, 11:42 -
While parts of Canada have been dealing with the coldest winter in the last few decades, there’s at least one place on earth where colder temperatures might be welcomed.
WHERE'S WINTER?: Searching for winter in Sochi
Sochi, Russia, host of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, has been dealing with mild temperatures since the Opening Ceremonies on February 7, 2014. Temperatures have hovered in the mid-teens, peaking at 18°C last weekend. (The average daytime high in February is around 10°C.) Sochi may well go down as the warmest city to ever host the Winter Games.
Sochi is one of Russia’s southernmost cities, and also one of the few areas in the country with a humid subtropical climate. Sochi is a coastal resort city, but its proximity to the Western Caucasus Mountains make it a winter destination as well. The alpine and nordic events are not held in Sochi, but about 50 km inland at the nearby Roza Khutor ski resort. Even though the temperatures are cooler in the higher elevations, it hasn’t been cold enough. Some athletes have complained about the poor snow quality at the outdoor venues, and some are even blaming the slushy conditions for a few injuries.
Still, Russian officials say they’re prepared. They've been stockpiling snow for the past two years, and utilizing man-made snow machines to create even more. So far, the only weather delay has been due to fog.
Sochi isn’t the first host city to run into weather problems, and it certainly won’t be the last. Not only is the weather highly variable year to year in any location, but as our world warms over the next few decades, research indicates that finding reliable host cities will become more and more difficult.
Lessons from Canada
Canada has hosted the Winter Games twice (Calgary in 1988 and Vancouver in 2010), and twice has the weather proved challenging.
Geographically speaking, Vancouver and Calgary seem like perfect cities for the winter games. Both are located near mountain resorts renowned for their powder. Although Vancouver itself is mild during the winter months, the higher elevations nearby (Cypress Mountain, Whistler) are usually cold enough to allow a long and successful ski season. Although Calgary’s winters are colder than Vancouver, they’re nowhere near as cold as their neighbours to the north (Edmonton) or east (Winnipeg).
Remember the old saying: climate is what you expect; weather is what you get. During the Winter Games in Vancouver and Calgary, the athletes, organizers, and fans were expecting cold and snowy. What they got was something different.
In Vancouver, a strong El Nino pattern combined with a strong Pineapple Express took the blame for the extremely mild and wet conditions to kick off the games. Leading up to the games, Vancouver had their warmest 31-day stretch of winter weather since records began. Heavy rain drenched a muddy Cypress Mountain. Hundreds of people worked around the clock to bring in a sufficient amount of snow to coat the slopes. The weather steadily improved throughout the games, and despite the initial poor weather, they were a success.
Calgary is known for its highly variable weather patterns, and February is no exception. The winter months can be brutally cold, and warm Chinook winds are usually welcomed. During the 1988 Winter Games, however, the Chinook winds were a little too strong as Calgary experienced some of the warmest temperatures ever recorded in February. Calgary hit an incredible 18.1°C on February 26, 1988, almost exceeding Miami, Florida’s high that day of 19.4°C. Winds were strong too, with gusts reaching 90 km/h at one point. But like Vancouver, despite the weather, the games were a success.
The lesson here? Be prepared. Even cities that have a perfect climate for winter games are susceptible to weather extremes. Fortunately, with today's technology, we can work around many of those challenges.
Calgary, Vancouver, Sochi... If it seems like the Winter Games are being held in warmer and warmer cities, you’re right. At the time, Vancouver was the mildest choice climatologically; Sochi has topped that. But there’s another issue at play that we can’t ignore -- climate change. As our planet warms, our choice of host cities that are cold enough to support the games diminishes.
NEXT PAGE: What does the future hold for winter games in a warming world?
The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warming World
Mild temperatures, muddy ski hills, man-made snow -- is this what the future of the Olympic Winter Games looks like? According to one recent study, yes.
Scientists are more certain than ever that the earth is warming. According to the latest IPCC report, in the past few decades, not only has the atmosphere and ocean warmed, but the amount of snow and ice around the world has diminished significantly. The IPCC anticipates that additional warming in the winter months will further decrease the snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere.
Climate change and the associated reduction in snow cover has already had an impact on many winter sports venues. And according to Daniel Scott, a professor of global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo, many of the previous Winter Games host cities will simply not be cold enough to host the games again in the next 50 to 100 years.
In the report, Scott and his colleagues looked at the 19 locations that have already hosted the Olympic Winter Games, and assessed which cities would have a suitable climate to once again host the games in the mid- to late-21st century. Several climatic indicators were examined, including snow depth and maximum and minimum temperatures, and future projections were made using the IPCC climate change scenarios.
According to Scott’s analysis, by mid-century, only 11 of the 19 former host cities would have a suitable climate to host the games again in the low emissions scenario. In the high emissions scenario, by late-century, only six cities out of 19 would be able to host the Winter Games again. That means locations like Sochi and Vancouver would simply not be cold enough to reliably host the Games.
“Weather has always been a key part of the Olympic Winter Games,” says Scott. “We have devised many weather risk management strategies over the decades that have allowed the games to be held in locations like Vancouver and Sochi, but these adaptations have limits and by mid-century we are seeing these limits surpassed in many former host cities.”
Some climate models indicate that although the snow season will get shorter, northern continental areas may actually see an increase in snow amounts mid-winter. But Scott notes that snowfall is still highly variable and can be unreliable. Natural snow is great, but Olympic venues need to rely on man-made snow as a contingency plan. And if temperatures are too warm, man-made snow is next to impossible.
Calgary’s climate is cold enough that even in the highest warming scenario, conditions would likely still be suitable to host the Olympics in February. A Chinook can’t be ruled out, of course, but with low temperatures dipping below zero, snow-making is still possible.
Still, Scott’s report is unsettling. Finding new locations for the Winter Games will be a challenge, and current venues will have to continue to adapt to changing conditions.
Scott adds, “Climate change will require further climatic adaptations and alter both how the games will be delivered and the geography of where the games can be held reliably in the future.”