Winter Olympians face climate change as snow takes center stage

A few months before the start of the 2022 Winter Games, more than 100 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls converged in the Swiss village of Saas-Fee, nestled in the Alps.

For professional snowboarders and skiers, the glaciers here often serve as a winter retreat here in late summer or early fall – a key training opportunity, long before other resorts open for the season. But this year, some athletes said their trips to Saas-Fee had also served as a lesson or a reminder of a lingering existential problem in their sport.

“(It’s) a pure physical testament to the seriousness of climate change,” snowboarder Jamie Anderson said at the Team USA media summit in October.

The double Olympic gold medalist said she noticed chunks of ice breaking off from a glacier in Saas-Fee and streaming waterfalls where the ice was once frozen. Alpine skiing veteran Ryan Cochran-Siegle said he has seen “significant changes” since he started training in Europe years ago. Para-snowboarder Keith Gabel called it “breathtaking”.

“Who can know how much longer we will be able to compete in alpine skiing? added para-alpine skier Thomas Walsh. “… We shouldn’t be pessimistic about it, but there is the question of how long we can do this, and how long we can ski outside on real snow.”

While global warming poses a long-term threat to the winter sports ecosystem, experts say they can already see its effects now – in rising temperatures and unpredictable weather at competition venues, or in the quality of the snow on the slopes.

The Beijing Winter Olympics are no exception.

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The Games are once again taking place in a part of the world which, although freezing in winter, does not receive much snow. And as the effects of climate change worsen, this trend may be here to stay.

In a recently published study, researchers from three countries asked athletes about safe competition conditions and looked at future climate projections for the 21 cities that have already hosted the Winter Olympics. They found that, barring a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, only Sapporo, Japan would have a reliable enough climate to host the Winter Games again at the end of the century.

“If we meet the Paris Climate Agreement (targets) and these emissions scenarios, we will end up with around half of our former Olympic venues still climate-safe. And if we continue on the path we track right now, we’ll end up with one,” said Daniel Scott, a professor at the University of Waterloo.

“By 2050, but certainly after that, these are two fundamentally different outcomes – two different worlds for winter sports as a whole.”

“A real concern”

The study also found that the average February daytime temperature in past host cities increased by more than 10 degrees from the Games held in the 1920s to 1950s to the Games held in the 2000s. would probably continue, barring a change.

Scott thinks this would encourage Olympic bids to feature mountain venues further and further away from their “urban” counterparts. In Beijing, for example, the majority of skiing and snowboarding events will take place in Zhangjiakou, more than 110 miles northwest of Beijing.

“We’re being pushed higher and higher in altitude, to reach our snow,” said Jeremy Jones, the founder of Protect Our Winters (POW), a non-profit organization that aims to rally the winter sports community. around climate issues. “These low-lying places, in particular, are extremely at risk.”

Jones, a backcountry snowboarder, started POW in 2007 after noticing changes in the snow — conditions that made riding dangerous more frequently. But he said it was “astonishing” how much has changed in the decade since – from January rains at major ski resorts to melting glaciers, like athletes from the American team saw him in Saas-Fee.

“We refer to it as moving at a freezing pace. Incredibly slow,” Jones said. “You shouldn’t notice the difference in size of a glacier from year to year, but it’s just really accelerated.”

While the effects of climate change can directly impact Olympic and Paralympic athletes — creating slush conditions, for example, that lead to injuries — Jones sees the problem with a broader perspective.

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He thinks of local ski resorts that may be forced to close due to a lack of quality snow. The economies of surrounding towns, which often depend on the money these stations bring in. And beginner skiers and snowboarders who, without a local ski resort, might never try the sport.

“Athletes had real concern, sometimes bordering on fear, about the future of their sport,” said Scott, whose team interviewed more than 300 elite winter sports athletes in the framework of his study.

“They’re worried about all these starting slopes where my kids can learn to ski. They’ll never become elite athletes if they don’t learn close to home. And if these ski resorts go bankrupt, what does this mean for the future of the sport?”

“A major, major problem”

Artificial snow has become common in elite ski and snowboard competitions. The Beijing Olympics, for example, will depend entirely on it, despite the related environmental concerns. (Critics said Beijing shouldn’t use so much of its scarce water supply to create fake snow; organizers said the water used will melt and replenish local reservoirs in the spring.)

Jones, however, said artificial snow is not a silver bullet to the impacts of climate change. It can be difficult to produce and store artificial snow at higher temperatures, while athletes and coaches have said it can also lead to icy conditions which pose safety concerns.

“It can be really hard out there and falling down can feel like falling on concrete,” American cross-country ski coach Chris Grover told The Associated Press, “which makes it a bit more dangerous. than if it were natural snow conditions.”

American biathlete Susan Dunklee said questions about artificial snow, like so many others, go back to accessibility – a desire not only to be able to ski competitively, but also to allow others to enjoy the sport.

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“The venues we race at can create snow, make racing happen for elite athletes,” she said. “But my concern, as a snow lover, is wanting to see snow in places where a general recreational skier has always been able to ski. I also don’t want them to lose access to snow. And that’s a major problem with climate change.”

Some athletes, like Anderson, are also grappling with the impact their own careers — with frequent international travel and flights — could have on climate change. But most also want to be part of the solution.

“We have to take it seriously and make small changes,” Gabel said. “It all adds up.”

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.