The climate crisis isn’t just bad because it’s making flowers bloom earlier and turning Mad Max from a sci-fi franchise to a worryingly accurate prophecy. It’s also going to change the way we watch sports: in the future, Winter Olympics will likely take place on completely artificial snow.
And by “the future,” we mean “starting now.” As detailed by a report from Loughborough University London, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are set to be the first ever where not a flake of natural snow will be on the ground – it will virtually all be human-made.
“The lack of natural snow at Beijing 2022 is not a surprise,” notes the report’s executive summary. “The crisp slopes outside Beijing mask an unfortunate truth: they will be the result of an estimated 49 million gallons of chemically-treated water frozen through snow machines, an energy-intensive process that is costly and potentially damaging in water-stressed areas.”
To make enough snow to cover the planned competition area of around 800,000 square meters (about 8.6 million square feet), the organizers are setting up eight water cooling towers, 130 fan-driven snow generators, and around 300 snowmaking guns. In total, the Games will require around 1.2 million cubic meters (around 317 million US gallons) of artificial snow to be created – and all in one of the world’s most water-scarce cities.
As you can imagine, that will take a mind-boggling amount of energy to create – and, the report points out, will be “both costly and … a significant drain on water resources.” This is true “even if powered by renewables,” the authors note – and as China sets up a huge new winter sports tourism industry, likely reliant on artificial snow, it may be just the beginning of the problem.
The move isn’t just bad news for environmentalists either: man-made snow means more hazardous competitions for Winter athletes.
“Artificial snow is icier, therefore faster and more dangerous,” Estonian Olympic biathlete Johanna Taliharm told AP last month. “It also hurts more if you fall outside of the course when there is no fluffy snowbank, but a rocky and muddy hard ground.”
That’s because man-made snow is not really snow at all – it’s made from frozen water droplets pushed through a snow cannon at high speed. Unlike the stuff that falls from the sky, it isn’t made from regular six-pointed flakes, which means it doesn’t have those natural air pockets inside to keep the slopes fluffy and dry. Instead, its high water content makes it prone to getting icy, “like a hockey rink when you have hockey snow,” slopestyle rider and 2018 gold medalist Red Gerard told SI.
“It’s basically shaved ice,” he added. “That’s what it feels like you’re riding on.”
British snowboarder Zoë Gillings-Brier agreed, telling the Loughborough report that “artificial snow is less forgiving if you fall.” With her two decades of snowboarding experience, she has seen the increasing reliance on man-made snow first-hand – “There is less snowfall than there was 20 years ago,” she said, “and more competitions are cancelled due to lack of snow.”
If the climate crisis continues to unfold the way we’re seeing, one of those competitions may end up being the Winter Olympics itself. The report notes that increasing temperatures will reduce potential venues for Winter sports to a collection of “smaller, more remote venues,” potentially with “insufficient infrastructure, a lack of tourist amenities and lower levels of accessibility.” Out of the 19 recent host cities, researchers calculated, only six would potentially be able to host the Winter Games by 2080 – and Beijing will not be among them.
“The conditions are definitely more dangerous than what we've seen before,” Canadian freestyle skier Phillipe Marquis told the report. “From an environmental standpoint, the amount of water required to produce substantial amounts of [artificial] snow to ensure early season venues is mind-blowing.”
“Yes, we've always needed a push from artificial snow making, but we've come to an irreversible crossroad where artificial snow making is now carrying a heavy load,” he added. “Where will we be in five years? Ten years? Fifty years?”