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Climate change is making it harder to host a Winter Olympics

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Friday, January 19, 2018, 3:40 PM - As the world warms, the Winter Olympics won’t disappear, but it’ll be harder than ever to find a place with the right climate conditions to pull it off.

Scientists looked into various climate change scenarios, including one where the Paris climate agreement to limit emissions to keep future average temperature increases below 2oC. Even in that optimistic scenario, eight of the 21 locations the study looked at will either be climatically at high risk, or outright unsuitable, by the 2050s. By the 2080s, that number rises to nine, but in a higher emissions scenario, only eight of the 21 will still be suitable for winter games by that time period.

“If we achieve Paris, a plus-two scenario, that’s our low emissions scenario. We still lose about half the locations,” Daniel Scott, a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo, told The Weather Network. “Climate change will affect or alter the geography of the winter olympics, regardless of whether Paris is successful or not.”

Canada has hosted the Winter Games twice, in Calgary in 1988 and Vancouver in 2010, and the future of those cites is a mixed bag. Though Calgary remains suitable through to the 2080s in all scenarios, Vancouver is believed to be high risk by the 2050s in the most optimistic scenarios, and completely unsuitable by the 2080s.

The study, originally released in 2014 and updated this month, used past Winter Olympics venues as a baseline for calculating suitability for future games. It found that the change in average temperatures has accelerated since the first Winter Olympics at Chamonix in France in 1924. Average temperatures at venues rose 0.4oC from the 1920s to the 1950s, 3.1oC from the 1960s to 1990s, and 7.8oC for games held in the 21st Century.

Image courtesy: University of Waterloo

That study was updated this year to include 2018 host Pyeongchang in South Korea and China’s capital of Beijing, and Scott said things looked rosier for those two spots at least.

“One of the … positive elements that came out [the study] was both of those Asian locations were in our climate reliable category all the way through, even under higher emission scenarios,” Scott says. “Winter is their dry season, so both are fairly can [receive] fairly limited natural snow, but both have very reliable cold temperatures, so we know they’ll be able to make the snow and more importantly be able to maintain that snowpack.”

But though some locations can fight increasing increasing average temperature with snow making, placement of dry ice in some areas, and other methods, those techniques become cost-prohibitive beyond a certain point, and Scott says they were factored into the study.

Scott says even under the most optimistic emission scenarios, CO2 release would only be limited, not reversed, and climate change would still occur. There are methods being considered to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to bring levels down to where they were in the past, but those technologies are in their infancy, and there’s no way to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than humanity puts in anytime in the foreseeable future. 

Once a city is no longer has the right climate to host the Winter Olympics, it’s off the list for good, and Scott says one less publicized effect is that places where would-be Olympians go to train are also gradually becoming less suitable.

“There are so many other good reason to reduce emissions, from saving sovereign states, to thousands of species,” Scott says. “Adding a few more winter Olympic potential hosts is just one more addition.”

Embed from Getty Images

Possible future sites in Canada

Scott says the researchers did look at how other sites in Canada might shape up in the future.

Though Vancouver will be a write-off in the long term, Calgary has been a long-running winter sports success with a climate that is expected to stay suitable for the Olympics. The city’s Olympic arena is still used for training, and its continued prospects to host future games may boost efforts to build a new stadium.

Other sites with rosy Winter Games prospects include Quebec City and Montreal. Neither city has hosted before, and the main thing holding back a potential bid is the fact Quebec does not have enough elevation to host Olympic-quality downhill skiing, though Scott says if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ever considers joint-hosting bids, there has been talk of partnering with Vermont.

Outside of North America, northern and Central Asia are becoming more attractive, with cities in China, Kazakhstan and other countries expanding winter sports infrastructure as interest grows.

“So there are some new areas where winter sports haven't been traditional powerhouses in winter sports that may emerge as good candidates going forward,” Scott says.

SOURCES: 2014 UWaterloo study | Thumbnail image license

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