How global warming threatens the future of the Winter Olympics

It wasn’t just the massive chunks of ice that broke loose and fell down. New waterfalls appeared and tumbled from the surrounding cliffs as if the frozen terrain were melting.

Just before the 2022 Winter Olympics, the top US skiers and snowboarders traveled to the Swiss Alps in early fall and congregated in the village of Saas-Fee for off-season training on the year-round ice and snow of an adjacent glacier.

This time it looked different than previous camps.

“Definitely something weird about the game,” said snowboarder Red Gerard, the defending gold medalist in men’s slopestyle.

Teammate Jamie Anderson, two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s slopestyle, called it “a sheer physical testament to how gnarly climate change is.”

American athletes traveling to Beijing may not be formally trained in climatology or familiar with all relevant political arguments. Your concerns may not compare to widespread heat waves, droughts and floods. But they have a ground-level view of climate trends and can see the effects of global warming firsthand.

A recent Canadian study predicted that by the end of the century, nine of the last 21 Winter Olympic cities may not be cold enough to reliably host downhill racing, biathlon, or halfpipe competitions. The list includes Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley) and Vancouver.

Elite competitors say they are already struggling with shorter winter seasons and deteriorating conditions on the international circuit.

“We’ve definitely had some challenges in recent years,” said air skier Winter Vinecki. “We went to construction sites and normally it would have snowed, but it rained. And then there were days when we would jump on snow in the pouring rain.”

Like other hosts, Beijing will hold split Winter Games, with indoor events like figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and curling being played in urban arenas and snow sports taking place in remote mountain regions.

Although forecasts have predicted a cold winter for China, high-altitude venues in the Yanqing and Zhangjiakou areas are not expected to receive much rainfall. Chinese officials have launched a campaign to cover ski slopes and courses with artificial snow.

Artificial reporting played a role in previous Winter Olympics. The recent Paralympics in South Korea and Russia experienced unseasonably warm weather.

LAKE PLACID, NY - DECEMBER 23: Anna Hoffman of the United States during a training session.

Anna Hoffman trains at the US Olympic Ski Jumping Complex in Lake Placid, NY on December 23.

(Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

“Pyeongchang, it was the mid-1960s [degrees] well into the ’70s,” said Keith Gabel, a US Paralympic snowboarder. “The same goes for Sochi, and these are not necessarily winter conditions.”

The International Olympic Committee deserves some blame for choosing meteorologically questionable hosts. But this 2018 Canadian study, led by researchers at the University of Waterloo, isn’t the only warning that natural snow may be getting harder to find.

Earlier this month, calculations by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration placed 2021 among the six hottest years on record, extending an eight-year record high temperature period. Despite annual fluctuations, global temperatures have risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.1 degrees Celsius, since the pre-industrial era.

Scientists have repeatedly found that emissions from fossil fuels are to blame and that the impact will worsen globally if the temperature exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“There are already changes in snowfall and precipitation types, snow versus rain,” says Twila Moon, a researcher at the National Snow & Ice Data Center in Colorado. “These changes are very widespread around the world.”

Climate change has made alpine and Nordic skiing more and more dependent on technology.

Race organizers are efficient at blowing artificial snow and “managing” the real snow, storing it under a roof and then moving it around to fill in bare spots, but man-made surfaces don’t quite feel that way. Halfpipes are firmer and less forgiving when snowboarders erase. Water-injected descents, a hardening process that makes them weather-resistant, can get icier, faster, and riskier at high speeds.

“I think we always have to face what’s coming and adapt,” said US skier Ryan Cochran-Siegle.

Snowboarders practice at the beginner's area at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Zhangjiakou, China in December.

Snowboarders practice at the beginner’s area at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Zhangjiakou, China in December.

(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Cross-country and biathlon events – the winter version of the grueling marathon – have also been affected. They require less coverage but are kept at lower elevations, making them vulnerable to snow lines going up the mountain. It was whispered that one moves upwards in more snow. And thinner air.

“Altitude is a very sensitive issue for many Nordic athletes,” said US Paralympic athlete Jake Adicoff. “It wouldn’t feel good to go up 2,000 feet from here and race, I don’t know, it just wouldn’t be ideal.”

Biathlete Clare Egan says: “As far as I know, the height limit is for safety reasons, which is that after a certain limit it can be so strenuous on the body that it’s no longer safe.”

Looking ahead, current Olympians wonder if the next generation will have enough snow to develop their skills. There are concerns about the feasibility of recreational skiing, as local resorts don’t always have the same levels of snowmaking offered by top competitors.

“I think that’s something that a lot of people who spend time outdoors can relate to,” said scientist Moon. “We can feel these impacts from drought, wildfires and changes in the waterways. Here in Montana we hunt and fish.”

Some US team members have been motivated to take personal action.

Freestyle skier Maggie Voisin encourages people to recycle and signs petitions supporting environmental legislation. A two-time Olympic biathlonist, Susan Dunklee spent silver at the World Championships to install solar panels on her home. She recently bought an electric car.

“It’s easy to get discouraged when you think about the whole issue of climate change,” Dunklee said. “But if you look at the sport, you see underdogs accomplish amazing things all the time… and we, as individuals in a global community, may be underdogs in this fight, but we have to keep fighting and keep believing.”

A view of the Shougang Big Air venue at night.

A view of the Shougang Big Air venue, which will host the big air freestyle ski and snowboard competitions at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

(Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Thoughts of global warming are likely to fade as the competition begins in Beijing and the focus will shift to gold medal performances. Large turbines resembling yellow jet engines — turned on and off by computer control depending on the weather — have been spraying artificial snow at Olympic venues for weeks.

“I trust that China will take it very seriously and have a lot of snow there,” said Paralympic skier Andrew Kurka. “So there will be no rocks or anything that shows up in the course.”

Nevertheless, adaptation to climate change has become part of the game. Winter sports enthusiasts know they face an uncertain future, as their training camp in Switzerland makes clear.

“In Saas-Fee, up on the glacier, you can see a huge difference in how it looks today compared to five years ago,” said slopestyle skier Alex Hall. “There’s a lot going on”


Watch LA Times Today at 7:00 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or stream live on the Spectrum News app. Viewers from Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99. How global warming threatens the future of the Winter Olympics

Tom Vazquez

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