Glacier Retreat Impacts the Winter Olympics

The 2018 Olympic Winter Games next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are quickly approaching, and plenty of drama has already unfolded in the preceding months. Some stories have notably involved the Russian doping scandal and security questions with close proximity to a tenser North Korea. But the effects of a changing climate also have left people uncertain. After unsatisfying warm conditions in both 2014 Sochi and 2010 Vancouver, athletes, fans and officials are crossing their fingers that Pyeongchang will be different. But this uncertainty goes beyond the Olympics in terms of how winter sports will fare as glaciers melt and warm winters become progressively prevalent.

Last month, Eddie Pells of the Associated Press released an article reporting on how climate change has been affecting Olympic training for U.S. athletes. Pells articulated how melting glaciers across the world have increasingly threatened the quality and even existence of winter sports that the world loves. As a result, these athletes and officials livelihoods have been directly affected by glacier retreat in surprising ways.

Fate of Winter Olympics

In the face of a changing climate, the future of the Winter Olympics is hazy. As Pells reported, “Scientists warn that worse is to come for winter sports, and that more warming will render proven Olympic venues unsuitable, even with greater use of artificial snow-making.”

Daniel Scott, a geographer at the University of Waterloo in Canada, elaborated why this is the case to Nature back in 2014. Scott’s research suggested that as global temperatures increase, the pool of locations vying to host the Winter Games will dwindle. As a result, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be forced to select colder, more isolated cities that may provide the best conditions for athletes but may not have the infrastructure to handle a massive influx of athletes, spectators and organizers. Moreover, the environmental impact of the Games would be more negative in such remote, relatively undeveloped sites.

Climate change will thus limit which countries may be capable of hosting Winter Games in the future. Historically, IOC selected bids based on the quality of available ski resorts. However, many popular ski resorts are located at vulnerable glaciers. With glaciers retreating significantly in recent years, it is difficult to perceive what will be the fate of these resorts and much of the ski industry even in just a few years.

Of these vulnerable countries, the United States may be one of those that may struggle to find a location to put up for a bid. Warm conditions across the country have resulted in poor skiing seasons over the past few years. Conditions so poor that American athletes have been forced to travel abroad to find suitable training grounds. The aerials team, for example, learned a hard lesson last year. They waited for snow in Park City, Utah, in preparation for the World Cup season, but it never came. The Americans showed up to the competition not having touched snow in months, and the results were as expected: no podium finishes and only one athlete in the top five.

To avoid a similar outcome for the Winter Games, U.S. athletes traveled to glaciers in the Alps to maintain offseason training in hopes to keep a competitive edge. But after a Lucifer heat wave plagued Europe over the summer, even European glaciers could barely support proper conditions. Talks are in place for U.S. athletes to train at the glaciers on Mt. Hood in Oregon for future years, but the team is aware of the physical deterioration occurring and the steps taken to maintain training.

Ben Cavet of the France’s moguls team told Pells his reaction to the melting glaciers: “It’s crazy, you know? I always thought global warming was like your granddad going, ‘Oh, I used to go and ski here 20 or 30 years ago and there was more snow.’ But now we really are talking eight years. I can see a huge difference. Up on the glacier [in Tignes, France], now there’s this huge cliff, you know like a big rock, that you couldn’t even see before.” Pells’s story further elaborates examples of specific glaciers deteriorating that have already affected training preparations, plus examples of how other athletes and coaches perceive the effects of melting glaciers.

Olympic officials and climate change

Olympic officials recognize the severity of the changing climate. Since 2014, the IOC has made sustainability a central priority in the bidding process with the adoption of the Olympic Agenda 2020. Rio 2016 had its share of successes and setbacks in fulfilling its sustainability promises, but Pyeongchang took note of its environmental legacy. Rhyu Teachul, the Director General of Environment for the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG), released a statement on December 26 alongside the publishing of the committee’s Sustainability Report: “Since we won the bid to host the Games, sustainability and the environment have been at the heart of our plans and procedures. Our venues and infrastructure have all been completed to the necessary standards and we will continue to focus on our sustainability goals throughout the Games and beyond to leave the legacy that the Games deserves.”

On the official 2018 Winter Olympics website, sustainability is one of the primary pages to explore. The Games appear to be vigilant toward mitigating their carbon dioxide emissions, including with a website dedicated exclusively to offsetting their carbon footprint, but little mention can be found about how officials see the Winter Games changing in the future. With glaciers providing reliable summer training grounds in the past, glacier retreat is at the forefront of concern for these athletes and officials. Jon Lillis, world champion in aerials skiing, told Pells, “Something that terrifies every winter athlete daily is the fact that the conditions are not as good as they used to be. You see videos of people skiing on glaciers back in the ‘80s and ‘70s, and half of that glacier doesn’t even exist anymore.”