A new study has found that the number of cities capable of hosting the Winter Olympics could be reduced to just one by the end of the 21st century if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically reduced. This comes as the current Winter Olympics being held in Beijing makes history as the first Winter Olympics ever held with almost 100 percent artificial snow.
The study, published in Current Issues in Tourism, looked at climate data from the 1920s until today, as well as future climate change models for later in this century, including where emissions goals are hit and missed.
“Climate change is altering the geography of the Winter Olympic Games and will, unfortunately, take away some host cities that are famous for winter sport,” Robert Steiger of the University of Innsbruck in Austria said in a statement. “Most host locations in Europe are projected to be marginal or not reliable as early as the 2050s, even in a low emission future.”
They also asked current winter sports athletes to assess their preferred conditions for Olympic sports Alpine Skiing, Nordic Skiing, Freestyle Skiing, Ski Jumping/Nordic Combined, Alpine Snowboarding, and Freestyle Snowboarding. They were asked to rank a series of climatic conditions (e.g. fog, fresh powder snow, chemically treated snow, icy surface, wind) on a scale from unacceptable to "ideal for peak performance, safety, and fairness", as well as the ideal temperature for competing in their sport, and temperatures at which point they would consider unsafe and unfair.
“We wanted to understand from the athlete’s perspective what climate and snow conditions made competition fair and safe," Natalie Knowles, former Canadian skier and current PhD student who was involved in the study, said in a statement. "And then determine which Olympic hosts could provide those conditions in the future."
The probability of unfair and unsafe conditions increases under all future climate change scenarios, according to the study. However, if we stick to the Paris Agreement the effects can be significantly mitigated.
"In a low emission future consistent with a successful Paris Agreement, only 13 of 21 previous host locations (all in the Northern Hemisphere) would remain reliable for snow sports competitions in the 2050s and 12 in the 2080s," the team write in the study.
"The impact of a high emission scenario was far more pronounced, reducing the number of climatically reliable locations to 10 in the 2050s and 8 in the 2080s. The prognosis for the Paralympic Winter Games, which occur in March after the Olympics, was far worse."
In one high emission scenario, only one city remains viable to host the Winter Olympics: Sapporo, Japan.
"The high emission pathway results in a very different outcome for the ability to reliably deliver fair and safe conditions for snow sports at Olympic Winter Games locations," the authors write. "By mid-century, the number of reliable hosts declines to four (Lack Placid, Lillehammer, Oslo, and Sapporo) and by the end of the century only one location remains reliable (Sapporo).
The main issues of fairness raised by the athletes related to the quality of the snow, including the dangers of artificial snow, while most safety concerns arose from higher temperatures affecting athletes and the snow.
"Too warm: body is too hot – difficult to build tension, tiredness – higher risk of injury … equipment (impacted) in general," one slalom skier told the researchers. "But mainly boots get too soft – no proper control over the skis – dangerous!"
The team found that 89 percent of the winter athletes they surveyed already think the climate crisis is impacting competition conditions, while 94 percent fear it will impact the future of their sports.
“No sport can escape the impacts of a changing climate," Daniel Scott, Professor of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, Canada, said. "Achieving the Paris Agreement targets is critical to save snow sports as we know it and ensure there are places across the world to host the Winter Olympics."