Are the Winter Olympics at risk from global warming?

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Where will the Olympic flag fly for future winter games as the global climate warms?

‘Fewer and fewer traditional winter sports regions will be able to host a Olympic Winter Games in a warmer world…’

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — By the middle of this century, many legendary winter Olympic cities will likely be to warm to host the games in the future, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo (Canada) and Management Center Innsbruck (Austria).

“The cultural legacy of the world’s celebration of winter sport is increasingly at risk,” said University of Waterloo Professor Daniel Scott, a Canada Research Chair in global tourism and lead author of the study. “Fewer and fewer traditional winter sports regions will be able to host a Olympic Winter Games in a warmer world.”

Only six of the previous Winter Olympics host cities will be cold enough to reliably host the Games by the end of this century if global warming projections prove accurate, and even under conservative warming scenarios, only 11 of the previous 19 sites could host the Games, the study found after tracking temperature increases at previous Olympic sites.

The average February daytime temperature of Winter Games locations has steadily increased, from 0.4 degrees Celsius at Games held in the 1920-50s, to 3.1 degrees Celsius at Games during the 1960-90s, and 7.8 degrees Celsius for winter Olympics held in the 21st century.

The study found that internationally renowned Olympic sites, such as Squaw Valley (USA), Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany), Vancouver (Canada) and Sochi (Russia) would no longer have climates suitable to reliably host the Games by the middle of the 21st century. With additional warming projected for later decades of this century, as few as six former host locations would remain climatically suitable.

“This report clearly points out the challenges that lie ahead for the Olympics because of climate change,” said Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters. “It’s particularly powerful to see how past Olympic host cities could be impacted under a higher emission scenario, so hopefully this will serve as a wake up call to the IOC and world leaders that major commitments to carbon reductions need to be made,” said Steinkamp, who was not involved in the study.

With the Winter Olympics just a couple of weeks away, POW and Olympic athletes from the Riders Alliance will launch an initiative to call attention to climate change on the world’s largest sports stage in Sochi, Russia in partnership with a group of graduate students from the Yale School of Forestry.

The study also shows why weather risk management strategies by Olympic organizers have become so important.

“Today it would be difficult to imagine successfully delivering the diverse Games program exclusively on natural ice and snow, as it was in the early decades of the Olympic Winter Games,” said Dr. Robert Steiger, of the Management Center Innsbruck.

The study found that the success of the Games is often partially attributed to favorable weather, while poor weather is highlighted as one of the greatest challenges faced by Olympic Organizing Committees.

Weather affects the ability to prepare for the Games and can directly impact outdoor opening and closing ceremonies, fairness of outdoor competitions, spectator comfort, transportation, and visibility and timing of television broadcasts.

The study also examines how technological advancements and strategies developed over several decades have been used to manage weather risk at the Winter Olympics. Technology like snowmaking, track/jump refrigeration and high-resolution weather forecasting are now critical components of staging a successful Winter Games.

“Despite technological advances, there are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can cope with,” said Professor Scott. “By the middle of this century, these limits will be surpassed in some former Winter Olympic host regions.”

The study provides an important opportunity for reflection on the long-term implications of global climate change for the world of sport and the world’s collective cultural heritage symbolized by the Olympic Movement. It also reveals that for some cities and regions interested in hosting a future Winter Olympics, the time to bid for the games might be sooner than later.

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