The Impact of Climate Change on the Winter Olympics

Many people are questioning the wisdom of deliberately holding the 2014 Winter Olympics in a subtropical climate.   While it does seem rather odd, even with the nearby Caucasus Mountains that are generally snow-covered in February, a recent study titled "The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World" by Daniel Scott, Robert Steiger, Michelle Rutty and Peter Johnson looks at the longer term impact of climate on the Winter Olympics.

The authors open by noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected that, depending on the level of future emissions of greenhouse gases, the average surface temperature of the earth could rise by between 0.3 degrees Celsius and 4.8 degrees Celsius (relative to the period between 1986 and 2005) by the end of the 21st century.  This is in addition to the 0.85 degree Celsius increase since 1880.  This temperature increase will likely result in a further decrease in the snow and ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere, a situation that will obviously have an impact on both future Olympic Winter Games and the infrastructure that exists from past Games.
The success of a Winter Games hinges largely on the weather during the Games.  It can also affect the profitability of the Games; for instance, operating costs rise substantially when warm weather melts the snow on outdoor venues that require snow, necessitating the transportation of snow from other areas or increased use of artificial snow-making equipment.  The use of expensive weather risk management technologies has increased over the past 50 years with the use of the aforementioned snow-making machines, refrigerated bobsled tracks, luge tracks and ski jumps and the movement of events like figure skating that were once held in outdoor venues to very costly, purpose-built indoor venues.  The authors note that up to the mid-1960s, the Austrian military used trucks to move snow to competition sites and compacted it by walking on it.  Here is a chart showing the evolution of the use of risk management techniques for Winter Olympic Games since 1924 Chamonix Games:
Interestingly, the use of weather risk management has become increasingly important; the average February daily temperature maximums at Winter Games locations has increased substantially over the decades as we can see on this list:
1920s to 1950s – av'g daily high of 0.4 degrees Celsius
1960s to 1990s – av'g daily high of 3.1 degrees Celsius
2000s to 2010s – av'g daily high of 7.8 degrees Celcius
This increase could reflect two factors; the first being general warming related to climate change and the second could be the willingness of the IOC to grant Olympics to increasingly warm climates as the ability of technology to keep venue conditions suitable for competition improves.
The authors then look at all 19 locations that have historically hosted the Winter Olympic Games and examined in detail two key factors that would determine whether these locations would have a climate suitable to host the Olympics now and in the future.  The indicators used were:
1.) The probability that the daily minimum temperature at the main competition elevation would remain below freezing.  When temperatures rise above 0 degrees Celsius, it is difficult to repair snow surfaces and any precipitation that falls is likely to be rain that will further damage snow surfaces.
2.) The probability that a snowpack of at least 30 centimetres can be maintained at the higher levels of alpine events through both natural snowfall and artificial snowmaking.  The 30 centimetre base was chosen since it is the minimum operational threshold for safe skiing on smooth terrain.  In fact, a minimum of 60 centimetres or more is required for competition on rough terrain.
A previous Olympic Winter Games host location was deemed climatically reliable for future games if both indicators were achieved in 9 out of 10 years.  If one or both indicators was achieved in less than 75 percent of winters, the location was considered unreliable.
Using climate change scenarios from the IPCC's high and low emissions projections, the authors calculated the average February warming compared to the 1981 to 2010 averages at the 19 former host cities and found the following:
Low Emissions Scenario – temps. rise by 1.9 degrees Celsius
High Emissions Scenario – temps. rise by 2.1 degrees Celsius
Low Emissions Scenario – temps. rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius
High Emissions Scenario – temps. rise by 4.4 degrees Celsius
With this data, here is a summary graphic showing the suitability of all 19 former Winter Olympic Games host locations between now and 2080 using both the low and high emissions scenarios with the red figures showing climatic unsuitability, the orange showing marginal climatic suitability and the green showing positive climatic suitability :
By 2080, of the 19 historical host locations, only 10 would be suitable in the low emissions scenario and only 6 would be suitable in the high emissions scenario.  It is also interesting to note that Sochi and its $51 billion Olympic infrastructure will be one of the first locations to drop off the suitability list in 2050, even using the climatic conditions associated with the low emissions scenario.
This study provides us with a glimpse into one of the unexpected impacts of global climate change.  The study should not be viewed solely as an academic exercise since it also shows taxpayers who are funding the building and maintenance of Olympic infrastructure the following:
1.) Warming temperatures will make it increasingly costly for the nations that hosted the Winter Olympics in the past to make economic use of their existing Olympic infrastructure, one of the key selling features that Olympic Committees everywhere use to sell taxpayers on the advantages of spending billions of dollars.   This issue has already become apparent in Torino, site of the 2006 Winter Olympics.  The $100 million luge and bobsled track built for the Olympics has been dismantled because the $2 million annual operating costs were too high.  That's $100 million lost forever.
2.) The cost of hosting future Winter Olympics will rise at rates that are well above historical cost increases since warming conditions are likely to mean that taxpayers will be funding greater use of expensive technologies that are required to provide the ideal snow and ice conditions that Olympians have come to expect.
Either way, we all know who loses in this scenario and it's not the IOC.
Click HERE to read more of Glen Asher's columns
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