What the Winter Olympics Was Missing: Cold Weather

With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics ending, logistics and security issues will be examined in great details, medals counted, and athletic performances scrutinized by those training for the next Olympics. Pyeonchang, South Korea is set to host the next Winter Games in 2018, but that brings up an even larger question that deserves attention. United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon has called climate change “the greatest collective challenge facing humankind today.”

Going forward, how many cities are there left in the world that can actually host the Winter Olympics?  Several experts say there are not many, due to the effects of climate change.

For the past two weeks we have seen temperatures in the Black Sea resort town get warmer than it was here in New York at UN Headquarters.  While the bit of sun may be a nice respite for spectators, some athletes withdrew from events because they felt the melting snow and general lack of regular winter sport conditions was has made the courses more dangerous for skiers and snowboarders.  Even in Vancouver in 2010, a miracle ‘deep freeze’ saved the day for several events when temperatures were running warmer than expected.

If Canada and Russia aren’t cold enough to host a Winter Games, then members of the International Olympic Committee aren’t the only ones with a problem.  According to a study published by the University of Waterloo in Canada, “if we experience climate change to the degree predicted by scientists, by the mid-21st century close to half the cities that have hosted…in the past would no longer be able to.  It simply would not be cold enough.” Here are two graphs from that study:

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What a sad thought to think a globally unifying event like the Olympics could be curtailed in any way because of climate ignorance. Olympic athletes, however, are not known for their lack of determination and spirit.  On February 10th several athletes along with non-profit partner Protect Our Winters, issued a statement expressing their justifiable anger over governmental inaction on mitigating the affects of climate change.  Chris Steinkamp, Executive Director of Protect Our Winters, told UN Dispatch their plans extend as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Paris in 2015, saying that they will “gather more signatures and keep the pressure on world leaders until meaningful action is taken on climate.” He adds, “This is not a one off project, POW and the athletes are fully committed to this.  We hope to have a dialogue with the IOC, and certainly with the UN about how best to take those next steps.”

Athletes are not the only ones impacted by inadequate winter seasons either. According to a report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “only four out of 14 major ski resorts [in the northeastern United States] will remain profitable by 2100.”  This translates to a downturn in the economy of those towns and regions because of lost tourism revenue and affects employment during the winter season.  Perhaps more fiscal-based research is what will prompt governmental and private sector reform. Emotional pleas from big name athletes are needed from a public relations standpoint for sure, but it must be coupled with more hard data in a language to which the private sector and tourism industry can relate.

Perhaps this pairing will make the 2018 Winter Games and beyond cold and successful ones.