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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.


REPORT: Sobering news on the state of Earth's climate


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.

Climate station data from the World Meteorological Organization and national Meteorological Services were combined with climate change scenarios from the IPCC to calculate if each location is deemed climatically reliable for future winter games. Image: Scott, D., Steiger, R., Rutty, M., Johnson, P. (2014) The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World.

Climate station data from the World Meteorological Organization and national Meteorological Services were combined with climate change scenarios from the IPCC to calculate if each location is deemed climatically reliable for future winter games. Image: Scott, D., Steiger, R., Rutty, M., Johnson, P. (2014) The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World.

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.”


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