Winter Olympics and Climate Change

Climate change is threatening the Winter Olympics and the future of snow sports by making conditions much more dangerous to athletes and participants.

With a rise in temperature, warmer winters aren’t just leading to mushier snow. The places where winter sports can be played at all are becoming fewer and farther between, which makes it harder for athletes to train, as well as enhances the costs and exclusiveness of winter sports.

Over time, winter sport event planners have become progressively dependent upon climatic alterations to deliver safe and fair conditions for competitors and spectators. Almost all events in the earliest Olympic Winter Games happened outdoors, but by the 1980s, sports like ice hockey, figure skating, speed skating, and curling had moved to indoor, refrigerated ice rinks.

Ongoing weather trends might affect the numbers of climatically consistent sites qualified for hosting major winter events. Therefore, organizers may have to turn to smaller, more isolated venues, possibly causing countless logistical difficulties, such as deficient infrastructure, a lack of tourist amenities, and lower levels of accessibility.

This is the first year in history that the Winter Games had to manufacture all of its own snow. Coordinators expected as much, given that Beijing has never been known for particularly snowy winters. But winter sports have become more and more dependent on artificial conditions for years. Artificial snow is meant in part to level the playing ground and convey reliable conditions for sports. However, it is also an indication that the ideal circumstances 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 artificial powder can damage the environment and add to the already massive costs of large-scale winter sports. Snowmaking has an enormous energy appetite and stresses water sources. Artificial snow is about 30 percent ice and 70 percent air, while natural snow is 10 percent ice and 90 percent air. The changes in the texture of the snow create a harder snowpack that alters how skis and snowboards slide.

Also, there is only so much snow you can keep on the ground when temperatures rise, regardless of where it comes from. With high temperatures, snow rapidly softens, forms ruts, and generates a spray when athletes cut through it, which can lead to accidents.

The bearings of climate change go beyond the Games as well. As preparation sites deal with rising temperatures, athletes need to spend more money and time discovering reliable sites. Beyond the Olympics, winter recreation locations such as ski resorts are becoming more luxurious to operate or are fighting to stay open, increasingly making winter sports the purview of the privileged elite.

Artificial snow in the 2022 Games:

  • The host committee assessed it would need around 49 million gallons of water to manufacture snow conditions for the Alpine event 
  • Beijing is one of the world’s most water-scarce cities
  • Games used around 300 snowmaking guns with three pumping stations at different altitudes to feed the snow guns
  • Economic costs of artificial snow estimated at other sites include $3 for every cubic meter of snow
  • China hopes to attain a goal of receiving 300 million nationals involved in winter sports in the coming years in a 1 trillion yuan (approx. $157 billion) business. However, this is only feasible if artificial snow use was connected across whole seasons and different resorts, overshadowing the use across one event such as the 2022 Games.

What are winter athletes saying about this?

“There is definite evidence of melting glaciers, such as the glacier in Saas-Fee Switzerland. This can not only affect the ability of skiers to use the glacier, but glaciers are also large holders of water that, when melting, will contribute to sea level rises. Warm spells also create inconsistent snow conditions and unpredictable melting.” He too explained how excessive reliance on artificial snow is not sustainable. “It [man-made snow] uses large amounts of water and energy and does not help solve climate change. We need to solve climate change at the source (reduce greenhouse gas emissions), rather than rely on mitigation focused solutions.” –  British freestyle champion and Winter Olympian Peter Speight

“As temperatures rise, it is unlikely races will continue at that location indefinitely unless they switch to an artificial surface, which is highly unlikely. All athletes agree that sliding on the St. Moritz track is beautiful compared to artificial tracks - so in the bobsledding world, the use of artificial ice conditions is not the remedy as it comes with its own issues. Poor quality sliding, the use of refrigerants; I see it as bad for the athlete experience and obviously bad for the environment.” – Canadian 4x100 relay team and bobsleigh athlete Seyi Smith

“It’s always been difficult to get consistent conditions but as I’ve been racing it seems more difficult with less snow coming later in the year, less consistently. It seems to me that the increased importance of man-made snow, especially in early season training, has become exceedingly more prevalent in my sport. Glaciers are melting and snow seems to typically come later in the season. It seems that more and more competitions are getting canceled regularly. Which is extraordinarily tough for me, because I’m a speed skier and being a speed skier but not having speed races is difficult.” – American para-alpine skier Andrew Kurka

As we are all aware, climate change is very much affecting most parts of people’s lives; from heat strokes to melting glaciers, the world we know will most likely never be the same. Winter sports are no different. There is, however, a silver lining to all of this: Winter Olympics are the perfect opportunity to create awareness on the matter and channel the world’s attention toward a common threat, as well as drive people to create solutions.