Sustainability Climate Change

Only ‘one reliable host city’ will be left for Winter Olympics if global emissions are not curbed: study

Workers clear snow from inside the finish area of the alpine ski venue speed course at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in the Yanqing district of Beijing. Luca Bruno/ AP

Story at a glance

  • Researchers published a study that documented how climate change has affected the Winter Olympics.
  • Their results found only one of 21 cities that previously hosted the games would be able to provide reliably safe and fair conditions for snow sports by the end of this century.
  • Global warming in the 21st century is expected to increase by an additional 2 to 4.4 degrees Celsius, depending on which emission reduction plan countries adopt.

As the 2022 Winter Olympics are underway in China, researchers are already looking ahead to how the planet can sustain holding future Olympic games as climate change affects the winter season across the Northern Hemisphere. 

Researchers from the U.S., Canada and Austria conducted a study to measure how significantly global greenhouse gas emissions would affect the Winter Olympics. Their results found that only one of 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics would be able to not only provide reliably safe but also fair conditions for snow sports by the end of this century.  

“Winter is changing at the past Olympic Winter Games locations and an important perspective to understand climate change risk is that of the athletes who put themselves at risk during these mega-sport events,” said researchers.  

Researchers used the United Nations’ Paris Climate Agreement as its barometer for climate change progress, noting that if emission targets can be achieved the number of climate-reliable host cities jumps to eight, with only six considered unreliable. 


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In 2015, the Paris agreement was created to incentivize countries to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible so the planet could be a climate neutral world by mid-century. It was adopted by 196 countries and required plans for climate action, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The treaty aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. 

However, researchers found that the average daytime temperature in February in Olympic host cities has steadily increased from 0.4 degrees Celsius at games held in the 1920s and 1950s, to 3.1 degrees Celsius at games held during the 1960s and 1990s and now 6.3 degrees Celsius in games held in the twenty-first century, which includes the current Beijing games.  

The 21st century warming is expected to increase by an additional 2 to 4.4 degrees Celsius, depending on which emission reduction plan countries adopt.  

“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. Most host locations in Europe are projected to be marginal or not reliable as early as the 2050s, even in a low emission future,” said Robert Steiger, one of the study’s co-authors from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, in a statement. 

As part of their study, researchers also surveyed 339 elite athletes and coaches from 20 countries to define fair and safe conditions for snow sports competitions, which found that the frequency of unfair and unsafe conditions has increased under all future climate change scenarios. 

Researchers noted that athlete safety has been an important perspective missing from the limited research on climate change and the Olympics. Athletes risk serious injury, whether that’s from skiing down steep slopes or hitting the superpipe on a snowboard, and studies of injury incidence rates recorded among Olympic/Paralympic alpine skiing/snowboarding/freestyle athletes were 55 percent higher versus other Olympic Winter Games.  

Climate change could worsen already dangerous conditions as researchers said scenarios like adverse snow conditions, athlete heat stress and equipment failures were often caused by warmer temperatures. For example, warmer temperatures make snow heavy and unsafe at high speeds. It can also make courses too slushy, causing athletes’ speed to slow down and force unsafe landings.  

The bottom line is that climate change is not an issue that the International Olympic Committee, sporting organizations or athletes and coaches can solve alone, with researchers concluding that needs, “a society-wide response to this grand challenge.” 


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