Climate MattersFebruary 2, 2022

Warming Winter Olympics

Warming Winter Olympics

KEY CONCEPTS

  • February temperatures in the 19 cities to host the Winter Olympics since 1950 have warmed by 4.8 °F on average since 1950. Beijing has warmed by nearly 9 °F over this period.

  • China experienced its hottest year on record in 2021. And Beijing experienced record-breaking warmth last February.

  • A recent study from the University of Waterloo found that nearly all previous host cities would be unable to provide reliably safe and fair conditions for Winter Olympics outdoor snow sports by the 2080s under a high-emissions scenario.

Future Climate Reliability - Warming Winter Olympics
Future Climate Reliability
Average February Temperatures - Warming Winter Olympics
Average February Temperatures

The 2022 Winter Olympics kick off this Friday in Beijing and will run through February 20, followed by the Paralympic Games from March 4 to 13.

China experienced its hottest year on record in 2021. And Beijing experienced record-breaking warmth last February, when temperatures climbed 40 °F above normal.

The recent warming in Beijing, along with poor local air quality, highlight the central role that the weather plays in the Winter Olympics—especially the reliability and safety of outdoor competitions.

What could the Winter Olympics look like in a warming world?

Hotter host cities. All of the 19 cities to host the Winter Olympics since 1950 have warmed since then, according to analysis from Climate Central.

  • Across all 19 host cities, February temperatures have warmed by 4.8 °F on average since 1950. That’s about three times the global average warming over the same period (+1.59 °F compared to the 1951-1980 climatology, according to Berkeley Earth).

  • February temperatures since 1950 have warmed the least in Squaw Valley, Calif. (0.8 °F), while Oslo and Lillehammer, Norway warmed the most (9.8 and 9.2 °F, respectively).

  • February temperatures in Beijing have warmed by 8.9 °F since 1950—the third-highest warming of the 19 cities analyzed. The 2026 Winter Olympics host (Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy) has warmed by 5.9 °F over this same period.

Fewer reliable Februaries. Past warming trends don’t bode well for the future of the Winter Olympics. But there are many conditions beyond temperature that determine the reliability, safety, and fairness of elite outdoor winter sports competitions.

  • A new study aims to understand how climate change could impact the conditions that matter most to the athletes themselves.

  • The study focused on four conditions that surveyed athletes and coaches identified as leading to unsafe or unfair outdoor snow sports competitions: rain, wet snow, narrow and low snow coverage, and unacceptable temperatures (below 14 °F or above 30 °F).

  • Climate models were used to project how future warming could impact climate indicators (specific rainfall, snow depth, and temperature thresholds) of these risky competition conditions. 

  • Under a low-emissions scenario (consistent with Paris Agreement goals), only nine of 21 host cities would reliably have safe and fair February conditions by the 2050s, compared to eight by the 2080s.

  • For a high-emissions scenario, just four of 21 host cities would reliably have safe and fair February conditions by the 2050s. And by the 2080s, only one (Sapporo) would remain reliable.

Paralympic prospects. The Paralympic Games could face even greater climate risks. Since 1992, the Paralympic Games have been held approximately one month after the Olympic Games in the same location—typically in March, when temperatures are warmer and the probability of rain instead of snow is higher than in February. Projected shorter Northern Hemisphere winters by 2100 could put outdoor competitions in March even closer to spring thaw, raising concern over reliable, safe and fair conditions for athletes competing in the Winter Paralympic Games.

The first Winter Olympics was held nearly a century ago. The number of events and competitors have grown tremendously since then—as have the variety of risk management strategies (including snowmaking) used to maintain safe and fair competitions over the decades. 

But with continued warming, it’s unclear where and when these management strategies will continue to be effective. Indeed, 94% of the elite athletes and coaches surveyed in the study mentioned above were concerned that climate change will negatively impact the future of their sport.

POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES

How will climate change affect winter conditions in different regions?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s interactive atlas allows users to explore the future of winter conditions across the globe by region.

How are the Olympics addressing climate change?
Beijing 2022 Facts and Figures provides a general summary of the upcoming games, including sustainability and gender equality initiatives. The January 2022 Pre-Games Sustainability Report describes efforts to reduce emissions and preserve ecosystems. The International Olympic Committee announced in 2020 that the Olympic Games and Olympic Winter Games will be “climate positive” from 2030. 

How are local businesses, including outdoor retail shops, manufacturers, and recreation centers like ski areas responding to climate change?
Check the economic impact of outdoor recreation on your state’s GDP with the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Outdoor Industry Association also publishes data on jobs and consumer spending at a state level. Climate change has also consolidated the ski industry in some regions, shuttering smaller resorts. Learn what ski areas and the winter outdoor industry in your region are doing to cut their carbon emissions.

LOCAL EXPERTS 

Cloudline Weather’s team of skiing-focused meteorologists and athletes can speak to changing snow conditions. Some states have outdoor recreation offices that work on access, climate, and business issues around the outdoors. That office or an outdoor recreation-focused state business organization can assist with finding local retailers and manufacturers in your state experiencing changes in timing and frequency of customer traffic as winter changes.

The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on the winter season and winter recreation under climate change. The American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all state climatologists

NATIONAL EXPERTS 

  • Daniel Scott, PhD
    Professor, University of Waterloo
    Contact: daniel.scott@uwaterloo.ca
    Expertise: Climate change and tourism/recreation, sustainable tourism, climate change impacts and adaptation

  • Mario Molina
    Executive Director, Protect Our Winters (POW)
    Contact: Lora Bodmer, Sr. Dir. PR and Media for POW, 307.690.1630 cell, lora@protectourwinters.org
    Expertise: Climate change impacts on winter sports

  • Jeremy Jones
    Pro Snowboarder and Founder of Protect Our Winters (POW)
    Contact: Lora Bodmer, Sr. Dir. PR and Media for POW, 307.690.1630 cell, lora@protectourwinters.org
    Expertise: Climate change impacts on winter sports

  • McKenzie Skiles, PhD
    Assistant Professor, Department of Geography
    University of Utah
    Contact: m.skiles@geog.utah.edu
    Expertise: Snow hydrology, cryosphere-hydrosphere-climate interaction

METHODOLOGY

Average temperatures for February at 19 Winter Olympics venues were calculated from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts’ ERA5 reanalysis. ERA5 is a reconstruction of the 3D state of the atmosphere using advanced statistical techniques and weather data from around the world. The trend in February average temperatures at each site was computed using linear regression. This represents the change in the mean conditions over the period 1950-2021. The 19 cities included in this analysis include the host cities for the 1952-2026 Winter Olympics.