Climate change threatens future of Winter Olympics: Only 1 prior host city still suitable by end of century?

WATERLOO, Ontario — The Winter Olympics typically move from one chilly destination to another every four years. Unfortunately, a new study finds the games could soon end up in the same old place every time — thanks to climate change. Scientists from the University of Waterloo say it will be increasingly difficult to find suitable locations worldwide for the Winter Olympics as global warming slowly changes the very nature of winter across the Northern Hemisphere.

Featuring researchers from Canada, Austria, and the United States, the study estimates that if global greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current levels, only one of the 21 prior Winter Olympics host cities would be a suitable location for future Winter Olympic events by the end of the century. On a more optimistic note, study authors also explain that if nations reach their emissions targets in the Paris Climate Agreement, there will be eight climate-reliable host cities within that same time frame.

“The world of winter sport is changing as climate change accelerates, and the international athletes and coaches we surveyed are witnessing the impacts at competition and training locations, including the Olympics,” says Daniel Scott, a professor of Geography and Environmental Management at Waterloo, in a university release.

Winter Olympics are heating up

The research team reviewed historical climate data from the 1920s to the present day for this study, and also studied various climate projections for the future (2050-2090). Beyond the climate considerations, the team also surveyed international athletes and coaches. That research revealed the vast majority feel climate change is affecting competition conditions (89%). An even higher percentage (94%) told study authors that climate change will almost certainly impact the future development of their respective sports.

“We wanted to understand from the athlete’s perspective what climate and snow conditions made competition fair and safe, and then determine which Olympic hosts could provide those conditions in the future,” adds Natalie Knowles, a PhD student and former Canadian elite skier involved in the study.

More specifically, the average February daytime temperature among most prior Winter Olympics host cities has steadily increased over the past century. Between the 1920s and 1950s, Olympic athletes competed in temperatures just under 33°F, while Olympics from the 1960s to 1990s were notably warmer (37.5°F). Games held in the 21st century (including the 2022 Beijing Games) have an average temperature of 43.3°F.

“We’ve studied the many ways the Winter Olympics has reduced weather risk since the first Games held in Chamonix, France nearly 100 years ago,” notes Michelle Rutty of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment. “But there are limits to what weather risk management strategies can cope with, and we saw those limits exceeded in Sochi and Vancouver.”

Climate change is altering the geography of the Winter Olympic Games and will, unfortunately, take away some host cities that are famous for winter sport,” continues Robert Steiger of the University of Innsbruck in Austria. “Most host locations in Europe are projected to be marginal or not reliable as early as the 2050s, even in a low emission future.”

‘No sport can escape the impacts of a changing climate’

“The International Olympic Committee will have increasingly difficult decisions about where to award the Games, but the world’s best athletes, who have dedicated their lives to sports, deserve to have the Olympics located in places that can reliably deliver safe and fair competitions,” comments Siyao Ma of the University of Arkansas.

For what it’s worth, the International Olympic Committee has made addressing climate change a major priority. The IOC is a founding member of the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework.

“No sport can escape the impacts of a changing climate. Achieving the Paris Agreement targets is critical to save snow sports as we know it and ensure there are places across the world to host the Winter Olympics,” says Prof. Scott.

“Sport can be an important agent for change for many people. Athletes want to be a bigger part of the solution,” Knowles concludes.

The study is published in the journal Current Issues in Tourism.

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