Climate change is threatening the viability of the Winter Olympics, according to a study by a multinational team of researchers led by the University of Waterloo.

The study, featuring researchers from Canada, Austria and China, found that if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically reduced, only eight of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to reliably host the Games by the end of this century.

“The world of winter sports is changing as the global climate continues to warm and elite winter athletes are witnessing the impacts of climate change at competition and summer training locations,” said Daniel Scott a professor of geography and environmental management at Waterloo. “The climate in many traditional winter sports regions isn’t what it used to be, and fewer and fewer places will be able to host the Olympic Winter Games as global warming accelerates.”

“There are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can achieve, and in the last Winter Olympics we saw those limits exceeded,” added Scott. “We predicted that weather and snow conditions would be a challenge at the 2014 Games in Sochi, predictions that came to pass when you consider the number of cancelled practices and complaints from athletes about inconsistent and unsafe conditions.”

Graph displaying winter olympic locations climatically suitable for future games

View accessible data table

If greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges to the Paris Climate Agreement are successfully achieved, only 12 of the 21 sites that have previously hosted Winter Olympics could still host the Games in the future. Previous hosts such as Squaw Valley in the U.S., Vancouver, Canada and Sochi in Russia would fall off the list.

“Climate change alters the geography of the Winter Olympic Games,” said Robert Steiger of the University of Innsbruck in Austria. “The International Olympic Committee will have increasingly difficult decisions about where to award the Games, and for some regions interested in hosting a future Winter Olympics, the time to bid for the games might need to be sooner than later.”

The need for weather risk-management strategies like snowmaking, track and jump refrigeration, and high-resolution weather forecasting has intensified as the average February daytime temperature of Winter Games locations has steadily increased. Average temperature have risen from 0.4°C at Games held in the 1920-50s, to 3.1°C in Games during the 1960-90s, to 7.8°C in Games held so far this century.

Weather risk management will become even more important in the coming decades with average February temperatures in past Winter Olympic host locations expected to warm an additional 1.9 to 2.1°C by mid-century and 2.7 to 4.4°C in the latter part of this century.

The 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea and the 2022 games in Beijing, China reverse the trend of locating the Winter Olympics in warmer and warmer locations.

“With the strong growth in winter sports in China, it was exciting to see that the Beijing games, with its Yanqing and Zhangjiakou mountain clusters, have a very climate-reliable future, even under very warm climate change scenarios,” said Yan Fang of Peking University in China. “The world’s best athletes, who have dedicated their lives to sport, deserve to have the Olympics located in places that can reliably deliver optimal conditions.”

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