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Will climate change melt the Winter Olympics?

It will be hard to host the Winter Games when winter isn’t cold.

Competitors training on the slopestyle course at Genting Snow Park in preparation for competition at the Winter Olympic Games on February 4th, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing mark the first time the Games are using entirely artificial snow.
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

For decades, Jeremy Jones has explored unique and pristine winter slopes around the world on his snowboard. He’s found new routes accessible only via helicopter and snowmobile, making a name for himself as a big mountain snowboarder, filmmaker, and entrepreneur. In the process, he developed a sense for subtle variations in wind, snow, ice, and water.

“The type of snowboarding I do requires me to have an incredibly intimate relationship with winter,” said Jones, who is 47. “I snowboard in the backcountry where the difference between a slope being stable and avalanching has lots of nuanced signs.”

But the ground beneath his feet started to shift, and so did his thinking. Resorts that used to have reliable snow started closing more frequently. Some mountains started getting more rain than snow as glaciers retreated up their slopes. For Jones and many fellow winter enthusiasts, climate change became impossible to ignore. “I was like, man, this problem is not going away without us doing something about it,” Jones said.

It’s not just snowboarding — climate change is already having an impact on several winter activities, including many of the outdoor sports on display at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. On average, winters are warming faster than summers and northern latitudes are warming faster than regions closer to the equator. Sports that count on outdoor snow and ice are especially vulnerable. In a warming world, precious few cities may be reliably cold with enough snow and ice to host Winter Olympics of the future.

In 2007, Jones founded the advocacy group Protect Our Winters with the aim of uniting winter sports enthusiasts in the fight against climate change. With the world’s eyes on the Winter Games, athletes-turned-advocates are hoping to channel some of that attention toward the ways climate change threatens their sports. And the group’s latest report, “Slippery Slopes: How Climate Change is threatening the 2022 Winter Olympics,” warns that without drastic action, many of the sports that thrill fans and athletes are endangered.

Warmer winters aren’t just leading to mushier snow, the authors write. The places where winter sports can be played at all are becoming fewer and farther between. That makes it harder for athletes to train and makes winter sports more expensive and exclusive, throttling the pipeline for new skiers, snowboarders, and skaters. It’s an early warning sign for the future of winter itself.

The Winter Olympics may never be the same

This is the first year in history that the Winter Games will have to manufacture all of its own snow. Organizers expected as much, given that Beijing has never been known for especially snowy winters. But winter sports have been increasingly reliant on artificial conditions for years. “Things have been trending in this direction for quite some time,” said Timothy Kellison, director of the Center for Sport and Urban policy at Georgia State University.

Artificial snow is designed in part to level the playing field and deliver consistent conditions for sports. But it’s also a sign that the ideal conditions for outdoor events like alpine skiing are getting harder to find in nature. Rising temperatures mean that more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, and the snow that does fall can be less substantial.

Covering a mountain slope in synthetic powder can harm the environment and add to the already enormous costs of large-scale winter sports (the Beijing Winter Olympics reportedly cost $3.9 billion, though some estimates show the cost is much higher). Snow-making has massive energy appetite and stresses water sources. And the snow itself is a pale imitation of what falls from the sky. Artificial snow is about 30 percent ice and 70 percent air, whereas natural snow is 10 percent ice and 90 percent air. That changes the texture of the snow, creating a harder snowpack that alters how skis and snowboards slide, so courses require further grooming.

In addition, snow machines still require cold temperatures to operate. In the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, snowmaking equipment couldn’t keep up with the unusually warm weather, so organizers used trucks and helicopters to bring in snow from elsewhere.

And there’s only so much snow you can keep on the ground when temperatures get too high, regardless of where it comes from. The snow quickly softens, forms ruts, and creates a spray when athletes cut through it. That can impair visibility and lead to accidents, explained Daniel Scott, a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Yet the option of artificial snow has allowed Winter Olympics organizers to select host cities that are far from ideal. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia set a record for the highest temperature at a Winter Olympics: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That was also a problem for the Winter Paralympic Games that came after. “In Sochi, [the injury rate] was six times what it was in Vancouver for the Paralympians,” Scott said. “These are the best in the world, so if they’re struggling with those kinds of conditions and many of them are getting hurt by it, that should tell you something.”

The impacts of climate change stretch beyond the Games as well. As training sites deal with rising temperatures, athletes need to spend more money and time finding reliable locations. Otherwise, they arrive at the slopes less prepared. “We also see more injuries caused by the lack of practice on snow and the added pressure to perform when there is a window of opportunities,” Philippe Marquis, a two-time Winter Olympian from Canada, wrote in the “Slippery Slopes” report. “Athletes feel the urge to push their limits even if the conditions are suboptimal.”

Many candidate cities for the Winter Olympics — including past hosts — won’t be consistently cold or snowy enough to hold the games in the future. This means the pool of host cities will shrink drastically, or hosts will have to spend far more time, money, and energy to prepare for future Winter Olympics. For example, Chamonix and Innsbruck in the Alps — a mountain range that lends its name to the Olympic event of Alpine skiing — may have to be ruled out for good if greenhouse gas emissions continue spewing unchecked.

Chart comparing
Potential Winter Olympics host cities may have less reliable conditions for the Games depending on different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.
Slippery Slopes: How climate change is threatening the Winter Olympics

Climate change could become a crisis for winter sports

Beyond the Olympics, winter recreation areas like ski resorts are becoming more expensive to operate or are struggling to stay open, increasingly making winter sports the purview of the privileged elite. By one estimate, the winter recreation season in the US will be cut in half by 2050.

Without direct experience, fans may have a harder time getting interested in and following professional winter sports, according to Kellison. “I do think as participation goes down in these sports, there will be concerns about the [fandom] of that sport at the highest levels,” he said.

The love of winter sports poses a dilemma for some fans and athletes. “To face a future without these sports is challenging, but it’s equally challenging to wrestle with the massive environmental footprint that our sport can have, from the emissions involved in getting to the mountain, to snowmaking, and the energy involved in operating lifts and lights and all the rest,” said Madeline Orr, founder of the Sport Ecology Group and a lecturer Loughborough University London, in an email. “That said, I have full confidence the industry and snow sports community will find ways to continue innovating on this issue and finding ways to adapt, because snow sports are central to our culture.”

For Jones, the big mountain snowboarder, climate change has made him rethink how he pursues his career. “My approach drastically changed to the point of way less travel, and no longer embracing helicopters and snowmobiles,” Jones said. He said he’s “really focusing on human power — foot-power snowboarding where I’m hiking these mountains.”

He acknowledged that in the big picture, losing places to ski, snowshoe, and snowboard are less devastating than other impacts of climate change. Rising winter temperatures are slowing the accumulation of snowpack in key watersheds, and in areas like the Sierra Nevada, that’s leading to patterns of flooding in the winter and drought in the summer. Declining snowpack is a key factor in wildfire risk and recovery in the Western US. Warmer winters are also fueling more severe allergy seasons, helping disease-carrying critters spread further, and creating a mismatch between flowering plants and their pollinators.

But winter sports also help create more than $800 billion in economic activity in the US, support more than 7 million jobs, and inspire millions to head outdoors into chilly weather, according to Protect Our Winters. The Winter Olympics are a prime opportunity to channel the world’s attention toward a threat and motivate people to find solutions.

“To me, it’s this opportunity to collectively come together around trying to save winter,” Jones said. “We need urgency on climate action.”

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