How Climate Change Is Threatening the Future of the Winter Olympics and What Experts Say Should Be Done

Olympics Climate
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The discussion around climate change and its impact on the Olympics is center stage this year.

Just ahead of the Olympic caldron's lighting in Beijing, China, marking the start of the 2022 Winter Games, a damning report was released saying that the future of the Winter Olympiad are in jeopardy due to climate change.

The Beijing Olympics is the first Winter Olympics to use virtually 100% artificial snow, according to CNN. More than 100 snow generators and 300 snow-making guns are being used to make the artificial snow, but it is also sparking controversy, as some athletes say it makes competition conditions more dangerous, according to CNN.

The need for artificial snow is just one example of how climate change is impacting the Games as some fear that as the Earth warms, it could be too warm to host such cold-weather events down the line, according to a new study by the Sport Ecology group at Loughborough University in England.

“The geography of the [Olympic Winter Games] changes radically if global emissions remain on the trajectory of the last two decades, leaving only one reliable host city by the end of the century,” the study said. “Athletes expressed trepidation over the future of their sport and the need for the sporting world to be a powerful force to inspire and accelerate climate action.”

The study added that “while the [International Olympic Committee] has acknowledged that no sport can escape the impacts of climate change, it has done less to assess physical climate risks and advance adaptation strategies across the organization and host cities.”

Climate change is affecting this year's Olympics in some really profound ways,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, director of Climate Central's Climate Matters program and chief meteorologist at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists who research and report on the changing climate and its impact on the public.

Woods Placky, who was not involved at Loughborough University study, told Inside Edition Digital she and her team looked at the date of every host city since 1950 and learned that Beijing has warmed “nearly 9 degrees Fahrenheit just since 1950.”

“For winter Olympics, we need ice and snow," Woods Placky said. "And there's two big things you need for snow, you need precipitation and cold. Now, in a warming world, we're getting more precipitation, but we're not getting more cold. So if you don't have those two matching up together, you're not going to have the snow you need for the winter Olympics.”

Artificial snow has been used at past Winter Games, including in Vancouver in 2010, where 7960 cubic meters of water were used to create the fake flurries, according to Quartz. Eighty percent of the snow in 2014’s Sochi Olympics was fake, and 90% of the snow at 2014’s Games in Pyeongchang was also artificial, Quartz reported.

Artificial snow on the National Alpine Ski Center in Beijing, China. - Getty Images

“In a warming world, we have more moisture, and where it is still cold enough, that's coming down as snow. But we're pushing that boundary of snow tipping over to rain in a few different ways. And it really varies regionally,” Woods Placky said. “So it's happening at lower elevations in the mountains, that rain snow level is creeping higher and higher.”

It takes significant levels of energy and amounts of chemicals to make artificial snow. Officials in China said they are using natural rainfall and recycled water for the snow-making, CNN reported. But 49 million gallons of chemically-treated water frozen through snow machines will be used during the Beijing Games, according to Loughborough University.

"This is not only energy and water-intensive, frequently using chemicals to slow melt, but also delivers a surface that many competitors say is unpredictable and potentially dangerous," the Loughborough University report said.

Also needing to be considered is the travel conducted, food used and waste produced that comes as a byproduct of the Olympics, experts say.

“You have to think through the transportation of getting everyone there, the waste that's created from hosting events, even indoors, and what you do with that waste, and really the full cycle of that waste, where it goes, what happens to it, the energy use while hosting these events and hosting the athletes at these events. There's a lot that goes into this,” Wood Placky said.

For the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, many of the venues from the 2008 Summer Games will be reused.

In the wake of an ever-changing climate, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) pledged to do more where its carbon footprint is concerned.

They announced on their website in January 2020 that initiatives such as sustainability “is central to the Olympic Movement’s vision of ‘building a better world through sport,’” and that the IOC is “fully committed to helping the world address climate change.”

The Loughborough University report said that “while the IOC has acknowledged that no sport can escape the impacts of climate change, it has done less to assess physical climate risks and advance adaptation strategies across the organization and host cities.”

The global aspect of the games also hits local communities. At a grassroots level, feeder systems for the future of Winter Olympic sports are under threat as well. Hockey players develop and learn to play on frozen ponds in the wintertime or outdoor snow activities like skiing, snowboarding, are all under threat as the Earth warms and the sense of what winter is and should be is eroding.

“We know the problem, we know what's causing it, we know how to fix it, we just have to do it,” Wood Placky said.

When reached by Inside Edition Digital, the IOC said it is "constantly increasing our ambition to address [climate change].”

“From 2030, we will require all Olympic Games to be climate-positive, removing more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit," the IOC said in a statement. "Paris 2024 has recently announced its ambition to stage the first climate-positive Games. Paris 2024 will reduce its carbon emissions by 50% compared with previous Games editions, partly because 95% of its venues will be pre-existing or temporary. Los Angeles 2028 will go a step further, not building a single new venue for the Games.

“As a carbon-neutral organization, we make sure that we walk the talk when it comes to addressing climate change. We will reduce our direct and indirect emissions 50% by 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement,” the IOC continued. “From 2024, the IOC will be climate positive.

“We are also using our influence to encourage others in the sports world to take action against climate change. Together with UN Climate Change, we developed the Sports for Climate Action Framework, which aims to create a climate action plan for sport. We are working closely with International Sports Federations and National Olympic Committees to implement it,” the statement added. “We appreciate that the Olympic Games carry major responsibilities in terms of climate change and other sustainability challenges. Our work addressing them is an ongoing journey, but we have come a long way already.

“In a world where collaboration is key to solving some of our most complex challenges, the Olympic Games can play a vital role in helping the world address them," the IOC said. "Few other events bring people together from so many countries, in celebration of human excellence, resilience and solidarity.”

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