Winter Olympic Sites Are Melting Away because of Climate Crisis

The number of places on Earth with the right combination of natural climate and geography for the Olympic Winter Games is already inherently limited. But as global temperatures rise from the burning of fossil fuels, the list is narrowing further. Factoring in the specific conditions that world-class skiers and snowboarders need to safely land tricks and have fair downhill races means very few past host cities will be able to reliably hold the games again by century’s end, a new study finds.

Concerns over how climate change will affect the biggest of all sporting events have been mounting each time the Olympics are held every two years. With the Olympic Summer Games, warnings about the impacts of heat waves on athletes are paramount. But the Summer Olympics are more adaptable than their winter counterpart because the former can be held in a much wider range of places and can be pushed into the somewhat cooler “shoulder season.” Refrigeration technology has also helped make it easier to hold some winter events, such as skating and bobsledding, in a wider range of places (even Miami has an ice hockey team). But outdoor sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, are more at the mercy of the climate.

Previous studies have examined how global warming will affect the snowfall and temperature profiles of Winter Olympic sites—but they have not included the more specific needs of competitive athletes, says the new study’s co-author Daniel Scott, a climate scientist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He and his team conducted an anonymous online survey of 339 elite athletes and coaches in certain skiing and snowboarding disciplines in 20 countries to find out what conditions they considered unfair or unsafe for their sport. Generally, the preferred conditions were those with harder snow surfaces, no rain and temperatures between –20 and 10 degrees Celsius.

Warmer temperatures and rain can lead to slushy snow that Scott describes as “like skiing into a pile of sand.” Athletes dealt with such conditions during the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. Temperatures climbed above 15 degrees C on some days, says Simi Hamilton, a retired cross-country skier, who competed in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics. The snow would be “rock hard and fast in the morning, and then gradually it just became so slow throughout the day,” says Hamilton, who was not involved in the new study. “And it absolutely made for unfair races in some circumstances.”

Sufficiently cold temperatures are also crucial for artificial snowmaking, which has been used in the Olympics since the 1980 games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Almost all of the snow at the Beijing games this year has been human-made because it is now the region’s dry season. “Part of the question of the viability of places to hold the Winter Olympics in the future is not necessarily whether they have the conditions where snow will naturally fall but whether they have conditions to allow for some of the artificial snowmaking,” Scott says.

He and his co-authors analyzed the survey results and created four indicators that contribute to unfair and unsafe conditions: insufficient snow coverage, wet snow, rain, and temperatures that are too high or low. The researchers combined these indicators with local weather station data and computer models to evaluate the future viability of the 21 current and previous host cities (going back to Chamonix, France, which held the first Winter Games in 1924). The team rated a location “reliable” if it had all four indicators during fewer than 25 percent of the days in February. A site was labeled “marginal” if one or more of the indicators occurred between 25 and 49 percent of the time. And it was considered “unreliable” if one or more of them occurred more than 50 percent of the time.

Charts show reliability of weather conditions in Winter Olympics host locations in various decades and emissions scenarios.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Climate Change and the Future of the Olympic Winter Games: Athlete and Coach Perspectives,” by Daniel Scott et al., in Current Issues in Tourism. Published online January 10, 2022

Four host locations—Chamonix, Sochi, the resort now called Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley, Calif., and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany—are already unreliable according to the study’s standards, largely because of higher temperatures and wet snow conditions. The study concluded that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow at the same rate as they have over the past two decades, only four locations—Lake Placid, Sapporo, Japan, and the Norwegian cities of Lillehammer and Oslo—will be reliable by mid-century. And by the end of the century, only Sapporo will remain in the reliable category in that scenario. If countries can rein in emissions in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the researchers found, nine locations will still be a reliable venue by mid-century, and eight will remain so by century’s end. “So that’s the good news: that the outcome is really still in our control,” Scott says.

The nuances in the appropriate conditions considered in the study, published last month in Current Issues in Tourism, are a welcome addition to research in this area, says Thomas Painter, a climate scientist who studies snowpack at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I really appreciated the perspective of this paper: that they looked beyond the simple binary of ‘Can you have the Olympics or not?’” says Painter, who was not involved with the study. He adds that the same issues that threaten the long-term prospects of the Winter Games also imperil the water resources of many communities around the world. Many depend on a robust snowpack lasting well into the warm months, when it can steadily top up rivers and reservoirs as it melts.

The study’s findings mesh with “personal experience witnessing firsthand much warmer winters throughout my whole career” and underline the speed at which those changes are happening, Hamilton says. A decade ago “I think [professional skiers] all just kind of assumed that it was this problem that was going to affect us way down the road, and we had a while to figure it out. The sense of urgency just wasn’t really there. Now I feel like things are just happening so fast, and that’s especially scary to see.”