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Winter Is Disappearing From the Winter Olympics

Feb. 7, 2018

Winter Is Disappearing From the Winter Olympics

Athletes Are Increasingly Concerned About Safety, Performance Because of Lack of Snow

One of the leading stories of the 2018 Winter Olympics is our disappearing winters. In your coverage of this year’s games in Pyeongchang, we urge you to report on the effects of global warming on winter athletes and competitions, as well as local economies and cultures.

The world is warming rapidly because of human greenhouse gas pollution, with 17 of the 18 hottest years on record occurring since 2001. This warming trend is dramatically curtailing winter weather and in turn hurting winter sports and athletes. A growing number of U.S. Olympians are speaking out about the problem.

Note that although some media outlets have highlighted a recent cold snap in Pyeongchang, the current forecast for the games calls for roughly average or above-average temperatures on most days. And despite ups and downs along the way, there is no question that the planet is warming sharply and winters are slowly vanishing.

Disappearing Winters — and Winter Sports

Due to global warming, U.S. winters are more than one month shorter than they were 100 years ago. In the absence of sharp curbs on fossil fuel pollution, that trend will continue. The consequences will be stark: Some U.S. ski venues are projected to see their seasons decline by 50 percent by 2050 and 80 percent by 2090. An industry benchmark for profitability is a 100-day ski season; half of the venues in the U.S. northeast are projected to fall below that length by 2039.

The National Hockey League is so concerned about global warming’s effect on the frozen lakes and ponds — which the league views as part of its “history and culture,” as well as the training grounds for future talent — that it participated in United Nations climate talks in Paris in 2015. (These talks produced the deal President Donald Trump has decided to withdraw from.) Even the Iditarod in Alaska has been plagued by warm temperatures and a lack of snow, with organizers forced to change routes multiple times in recent years, as well as import snow.

More broadly, winter tourism is a $12.2 billion industry in the U.S. It lost an estimated $1 billion and 27,000 jobs to declining winters from 2002 to 2012 alone.

Harm to the Olympics

By 2050, nine previous Winter Olympic host cities will not be reliably cold enough to host again – Sochi, Russia; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; Vancouver, Canada; Oslo, Norway; Chamonix, France; Innsbruck, Austria; Grenoble, France; Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Squaw Valley, California. The last two Winter Olympics were plagued by warm temperatures and a lack of snow. In Vancouver in 2010, organizers made artificial snow and hauled more in by helicopter and rail car, then spread it over bales of straw. In Sochi in 2014, organizers used artificial snow and applied water, chemicals and dry ice to maintain it.

Poor conditions are causing problems for winter athletes. First, athletes around the world increasingly are having difficulty finding training locations. This year, the U.S. aerial ski team relocated to Switzerland and Finland after a dismal 2016 season in which they waited for snow for a month at their Utah headquarters, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, then performed abysmally at the start of the World Cup season, not having practiced in snow for months. The search for training sites itself is becoming another form of competition, wasting time and money for teams. These problems extend to competitions themselves, several of which have been canceled in the past few years due to warm weather and the lack of snow.

During competitions, poor conditions can hamper athletes’ performances and put them at greater risk of injury. They also can make competition unfair. When conditions are poor, factors like the time of day, the order in which athletes compete and how recently a course or feature has been maintained can make big differences in performance.

Olympians Speak Out

U.S. Olympians are beginning to speak out about these problems. Several complained openly to the press at the previous two Olympics. Gold medalists Hannah Teter and Shaun White said that the half-pipe in Sochi was “dangerous,” “crappy,” and had “turned to soup,” and Teter noted that an athlete from another country was “very distraught” about the conditions. White already had withdrawn from another event, in part due to poor conditions. Regarding slope conditions that led him and other skiers to quit their practice runs, gold-medal skier Bode Miller said, “If you are not totally focused and paying attention, this course can kill you.” In Vancouver, Lindsey Jacobellis quipped, “There were a lot of crashes today. We were lucky that nobody was carted off in a sled.” Others called the conditions “pretty horrible.”

Several athletes, coaches, and other significant figures in U.S. Olympic sports have gone on the record about global warming and declining winters more generally:

  • Matt Saunders, U.S. aerials coach: “It’s a scary thing right now for winter sports. There’s fewer and fewer places and all the glaciers are melting. It’s definitely getting harder and harder to get on snow early, for sure. We are having to travel further and further.”

  • Mac Bohonnon, aerialist: “In my career, a lot of times, it’s been really easy to chalk things up to it being a bad winter. But [warming is] undeniable. And the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve seen that it’s a pretty common theme wherever you go.”

  • John Lillis, aerialist: “Something that terrifies every winter athlete daily is the fact that the conditions are not as good as they used to be. You see videos of people skiing on glaciers back in the ‘80s and ‘70s, and half of that glacier doesn’t even exist anymore.”

  • Max Cobb, president of the U.S. Biathlon Association: “We used to have relatively reliable conditions at all biathlon venues around the world. You can’t count on it anymore.

  • Andy Newell, cross country skier: “The once-consistent winters that I saw as a young kid are no more, especially near my home in Vermont,” and, “Years spent training have . . . shown me the negative impacts of climate change first-hand. There have been countless times in the past 10 years when our early season competitions have been delayed or canceled due to lack of snow, or our spring and summer training camps disrupted due to erratic weather or insufficient snowpack. It’s no coincidence then that the last decade was also the hottest decade ever recorded … Even the most reliable snowfall areas have seen a decrease in storms and precipitation. In the last few seasons, Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden, which host world cup ski events in November and December, have had to rely upon man-made snow and injected ice for races.”

  •  Alex Diebold, snowboarder: “The fall training camps that I used to participate in when I was a student at Stratton Mountain School in Stratton, Vermont, are not really feasible any more due to lack of snow and warmer conditions. I want my kids and their kids to be able to enjoy the outdoors the same way I did.”

  • Gretchen Bleiler, snowboarder: “I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel around the world chasing snow year-round now for the past 13 years. I have seen winter change all around the globe.

Broader Impacts

Apart from the direct impact on winters and related activities, the decline in cold weather threatens our well-being and economy in countless other ways. Just a few of the harms include “false springs,” in which plants and animals emerge during an unseasonably warm period, then are killed off by a cold snap; the spread of countless pests that are ordinarily kept in check by cold winters, including disease-carrying mosquitoes; and declining water supplies in communities that depend on melting snowpack for water. Warmer winters also are an indication of our rapidly changing climate, which can produce stronger storms and more extreme weather in all seasons, and is a factor in droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, lethal heat waves and more.

We urge you to report on disappearing winters during the 2018 Winter Olympics, and to note some of the broader problems that arise when we lose one of humanity’s four seasons. Although a noisy, often fossil fuel-funded minority agitates to give the opposite impression, most Americans are interested in learning more about global warming, and only nine percent are dismissive of it. Seventy-two percent want the U.S. to take “aggressive action” to slow it. Eighty-two percent support funding research on renewable energy, 74 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and 68 percent support strict limits on coal-fired power plants.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. Americans want to tackle it — and they want to hear how it impacts the things they love. They will appreciate your attention to the under-reported story of our warming Winter Games.