What the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics say about climate change
For decades, Jeremy Jones has explored unique, pristine winter trails around the world on his snowboard. He found new routes accessible only by helicopter and snowmobile, making a name for himself as a big mountain snowboarder, filmmaker and entrepreneur. During this process he developed a sense of the subtle variations of wind, snow, ice and water.
“The type of snowboarding I do forces me to have an incredibly intimate relationship with winter,” said Jones, who is 47. “I snowboard in the backcountry where the difference between a stable slope and an avalanche has a lot of nuanced signs.”
But the ground under his feet began to move, and so did his thought. Resorts that had reliable snowfall began to close more frequently. Some mountains began to receive more rain than snow as the glaciers retreated down their slopes. For Jones and many other winter enthusiasts, climate change has become impossible to ignore. “I was like, man, this problem isn’t going to go away until we do something about it,” Jones said.
It’s not just snowboarding – climate change is already impacting several winter activities, including many of the outdoor sports featured in the Beijing Olympics in 2022. On average, winters warm faster than summers and northern latitudes are warming faster than regions closer to the equator. Sports that rely on outdoor snow and ice are particularly vulnerable. In a warming world, few cities can be cold enough with enough snow and ice to host the Winter Olympics of the future.
In 2007, Jones founded the advocacy group Protect our winters with the aim of uniting winter sports enthusiasts in the fight against climate change. With the eyes of the world on the Winter Games, athletes-turned-advocates hope to channel some of that attention into how climate change threatens their sports. And the latest report from the group, “Slippery slopes: How climate change threatens the 2022 Winter Olympicswarns that without drastic action, many sports that thrill fans and athletes are at risk.
Warmer winters don’t just lead to deeper snow, the authors write. Places where winter sports can be practiced are increasingly rare. This makes it harder to train athletes and makes winter sports more expensive and exclusive, which limits the pipeline for new skiers, snowboarders and skaters. It’s a harbinger of the future of winter itself.
The Winter Olympics may never be the same again
This is the first year in history that the Winter Games will have to make all their own snow. Organizers expected this, given that Beijing has never been known for particularly snowy winters. But winter sports have increasingly relied on man-made conditions for years. “Things have been going in this direction for a while,” said Timothy Kelisondirector of the Center for Sport and Urban policy at Georgia State University.
Artificial snow is designed in part to level the playing field and provide consistent conditions for sports. But it’s also a sign that the ideal conditions for outdoor events like downhill skiing are increasingly hard to find in nature. Rising temperatures mean that more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, and the amount of snow that falls may be less.
Covering a mountain slope with synthetic powder can harm the environment and increase the already huge costs of large-scale winter sports (the Beijing Winter Olympics would have cost $3.9 billion, although some estimates show the cost to be much higher). Snowmaking has a huge energy appetite and stresses water sources. And the snow itself is a pale imitation of what falls from the sky. Artificial snow is approximately 30% ice and 70% air, while natural snow is 10% ice and 90% air. This changes the texture of the snow, creating a harder snowpack that changes the way skis and snowboards glide, so courses require additional grooming.
In addition, snow machines always require cold temperatures to operate. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, snowmaking equipment couldn’t keep up with the unusually warm weather, so organizers used trucks and helicopters to bring snow Moreover.
And there’s only so much snow you can keep on the ground when temperatures get too high, no matter where it comes from. The snow quickly softens, forms ruts and creates spray as athletes cut through it. This can impair visibility and lead to accidents, explained Daniel Scottprofessor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Yet the artificial snow option has allowed Winter Olympics organizers to select less than ideal host cities. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia set a record for the highest temperature at the Winter Olympics: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. This was also a problem for the Paralympic Winter Games that followed. “In Sochi, [the injury rate] was six times what it was like in Vancouver for the Paralympians,” said Scott. “They’re the best in the world, so if they’re dealing with those kinds of conditions and a lot of them are suffering from it, that should tell you something.”
The impacts of climate change also extend beyond the Games. As training sites face rising temperatures, athletes have to spend more money and time finding reliable locations. Otherwise, they arrive on the slopes less prepared. “We are also seeing more injuries caused by the lack of on-snow training and the added pressure to perform when there is a window of opportunity,” Canada’s two-time Winter Olympian Philippe Marquis wrote in the Slippery Slopes report. “Athletes feel the need to push their limits even if the conditions are not optimal.”
Many Winter Olympics candidate cities – including former hosts – will not be cold or snowy enough to stage the games in the future. This means that the pool of host cities will shrink significantly or that hosts will have to devote significantly more time, money and energy to preparing for future Winter Olympics. For example, Chamonix and Innsbruck in the Alps – a mountain range that gives its name to the Olympic event in alpine skiing – may have to be permanently ruled out if greenhouse gas emissions continue to spew out of control.
Climate change could become a crisis for winter sports
Beyond the Olympics, winter recreation areas like Ski stations are increasingly expensive to operate or are struggling to stay open, making winter sports more and more the prerogative of a privileged elite. According to one estimate, the winter recreation season in the United States will be halved by 2050.
Without direct experience, fans may find it harder to engage with and follow professional winter sports, according to Kellison. “I think as participation declines in these sports, there will be concerns about the [fandom] of this sport at the highest level,” he said.
The love of winter sports poses a dilemma for some fans and athletes. “Facing a future without these sports is a challenge, but it is equally difficult to tackle the massive environmental footprint our sport can have, from the emissions involved in getting to the mountains, to snowmaking and to the energy involved in running the lifts and the lights and everything else,” said Madeleine Orr, founder of the Sport Ecology Group and lecturer at Loughborough University in London, in an email. “Having said that, I have full confidence that the snow sports industry and community will find ways to continue to innovate on this issue and find ways to adapt, because snow sports are at the heart of our culture.”
For Jones, the big mountain snowboarder, climate change has caused him to rethink the way he pursues his career. “My approach has changed drastically to the point of reducing travel and moving away from helicopters and snowmobiles,” Jones said. He said he “really focuses on human power – pedal snowboarding where I’m hiking in these mountains.”
He acknowledged that overall, losing places to skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding is less devastating than the other impacts of climate change. Rising winter temperatures are slowing snow accumulation in major watersheds and regions like the Sierra Nevada, leading to winter floods and summer droughts. The decrease in snow cover is a key factor in fire hazard and recovery in the western United States. Warmer winters also fuel more severe allergy seasons, helping disease-carrying creatures spread further and creating a lag between flowering plants and their pollinators.
But winter sports also help create more than $800 billion in economic activity in the United States, support more than 7 million jobs and inspire millions of people to get outdoors in cold weather, according to Protect. Our Winters. The Winter Olympics are a great opportunity to focus the world’s attention on a threat and motivate people to find solutions.
“For me, it’s this opportunity to collectively come together to try to save winter,” Jones said. “We urgently need climate action.”