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Cold facts: Climate change limiting Olympic host cities

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By Gina Ressler
Wednesday, February 19, 2014, 11:42 AM

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.

ASTER satellite image of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games Coastal Cluster, the site for arena sports and the opening and closing ceremonies. Red indicates vegetation, white is snow, buildings appear in gray, and the ocean is dark blue. (NASA)]

ASTER satellite image of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games Coastal Cluster, the site for arena sports and the opening and closing ceremonies. Red indicates vegetation, white is snow, buildings appear in gray, and the ocean is dark blue. (NASA)]

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.

Daily high temperatures during recent Olympic Winter Games

Daily high temperatures during recent Olympic Winter Games

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?

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