Many Winter Olympic cities may soon be too warm to host the Games

Due to climate change, by 2050 many prior Winter Games locations may be too warm to ever host the games again.
Due to climate change, by 2050 many prior Winter Games locations may be too warm to ever host the games again. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Distil the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to their essence and you get 15 sports that involve gliding on snow or ice. Because of climate change, though, by 2050 many prior Winter Games locations may be too warm to ever host the games again.

A team of researchers, led by Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, came to that conclusion by taking climate data from previous Winter Games locations and applying climate-change models to predict future winter weather conditions.

The research, originally published in 2014, was updated this month to include the Pyeongchang Olympics, which begin Feb 9, and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

According to Scott's research, using emissions projections in which global greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise through mid-century and global temperatures increase by 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, nine of the host locations will be too hot to handle the games. But that temperature increase won't be felt equally.

Scott's model factors in artificial snowmaking, but that has its limits. The technology involves pumping water through small nozzles under high pressure. When the water hits cold air it freezes almost instantly and turns into snow - but only if the air is cold enough.

"You're relying on cold air to do the refrigeration for you," Scott said.

When the temperatures are above freezing, as they were during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, you have to turn to more extreme measures.

In Vancouver, which melted under one of its warmest winters on record, organizers brought in 1,000 bales of straw and covered them with a mix of artificial snow and natural snow hauled in from higher elevations to cover the bare ski slopes. In Sochi, whose mild climate made it an unusual choice for the Winter Games, organizers banked snow from the previous winter, storing it in shady places and covering it with insulation.

Both locations also used technology that involves embedding pipes with dry ice in the courses for aerials and moguls skiing. The technique supposedly preserves snow for up to two days by cooling it from the bottom up. Despite these efforts, athletes at both games complained of poor snow that they said led to unfair conditions.

Skiers, for example, may consider a competition unfair when shifting conditions make a course faster or slower depending on when the skier races. At Sochi, snowboarders complained that the half-pipe was dangerous because of bumps and sugary snow that can slow down riders when they should be gaining speed for manoeuvres that involve launching as much as 6m above the half-pipe's 7m top edge. During the event's qualifying runs, more than half of the athletes fell.

In the past, Olympic organizers have dealt with the vagaries of weather by bringing events indoors. Skating events were once held outside, for instance. But you can't move the mountains required for the giant slalom or the 50km course for one of the men's cross country ski events indoors.

Even in a warming world, some regions will still have cold places. But the number of possible Winter Olympics locations will decline. In the future, the Winter Games might rotate through a handful of the same cities.

At the same time, the warming climate affects not only the locations of the Olympics, but also the ability of athletes to train. In the United States, some ski locations are forecast to see seasons 50 per cent shorter by 2050 and 80 per cent shorter by 2090.

That will complicate life for elite athletes, but they can at least travel to find snow.

The repercussions are potentially much more serious for young athletes getting a first taste of winter sports. What will happen to the pipeline that feeds elite sports programs when the local ski hill, or the frozen pond where kids play hockey, disappears?

"It's an interesting question that nobody really knows the answer to," Scott said.