Melting Away? The Future of the Winter Olympic Games

winter olympicsThis weekend, the 2014 Winter Olympics will launch in Sochi, Russia. The event will involve 2800 athletes competing in 15 disciplines. It will also air in over 200 countries to an audience of 3.8 billion people, making it one of the largest cultural celebrations on earth.

But Winter Olympics in places like Sochi may soon be a thing of the past. In fact, according to a report from the University of Waterloo, only 11 of the 19 winter Olympic cities could reliably host the games by 2050. This number drops to only 6 cities (or less than 1/3) by the end of the century.

The culprit is climate change. The IPCC projects that the average February temperatures of the winter Olympic cities will rise by 1.9 – 2.1° Celsius by 2050 and 2.7 – 4.4° Celsius by 2100. As a result, many of the cities will lack the necessary conditions for Olympic events in over 25% of winters. These conditions, as defined by the University of Waterloo, are a snowpack of 30+ cm at high elevations and daily minimum temperatures below 0° Celsius (allowing snow and ice surfaces to recover from daytime melt).

The reality has forced “Olympic organizing committees, sporting federations, and the IOC to continually develop and refine strategies to reduce the risks of adverse weather”. Current strategies include scaling up snowmaking machines, refrigerating bobsled and luge tracks, moving events indoors, and stockpiling snow. But future strategies may include more extreme measures, such as cloud seeding (or spraying silver iodide into the atmosphere to encourage precipitation). Popular skiing destinations in Idaho and Nevada are already using the practice to increase snowpack.

However, in the words of Daniel Scott, an associate professor at Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, “There are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can cope with. By the middle of this century, these limits will be surpassed in some former Winter Olympic host regions.”

Thus, a more dependable solution is to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change. For its part, the International Olympic Committee has “amended the Olympic Charter to include a binding commitment to sustainable development”. It has also worked with host cities to mitigate and offset emissions (e.g. through energy efficient infrastructure, reforestation etc). Now, the 200+ Olympic member nations must show similar dedication, both through national and international actions. Otherwise, we may need to start preparing for North Pole 2090.

To learn more about climate change and its impacts, please contact the Climate Reality Project,, or the Citizens Climate Lobby.
Flickr Photo Credit

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