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A new report finds that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing will be made less safe for athletes because of the effects of climate change, including water scarcity, warm temperatures and poor air quality.
The report, released on Tuesday evening, was produced by Loughborough University in England, a coalition of academics called the Sport Ecology Group, and the British climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters UK.
Due to a lack of precipitation and temperatures too warm to sustain snow, this year's Olympics will be the first ever to rely almost exclusively on artificial ice and snow in outdoor events. Temperatures must be below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 Celsius) in order to keep ice or snow frozen, yet events like big air snowboarding and freestyle skiing will be held in Beijing, where nearly all February days in the last 30 years have been above freezing, according to the report.
Other outdoor events, including skiing, snowboarding, bobsledding, luge and skeleton, will take place in nearby Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. The Yanqing district has similar temperatures to Beijing. Only Zhangjiakou has a monthly average temperature in February below the freezing point, with an average daily high 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above freezing.
Beijing is also notoriously polluted by emissions from cars and coal-fired power plants. “Within the main hosting zone of Beijing, over the previous six years (2015-2020) in February there have been a total of 74 days with air quality in the range of unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous,” the report notes, “Overall, Beijing has seen a temperature increase similar to the rest of the world,” Madeleine Orr, a lecturer in the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough, who contributed to the report, told Yahoo News. On average, global temperatures have risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the era of the Industrial Revolution.
That warming has affected weather patterns in the Chinese capital. As in many areas from sub-Saharan Africa to the American West, precipitation is being increasingly concentrated in less frequent but more extreme rains, which causes dried-out land to be flooded by occasional storms.
Beijing is one of the world’s most water-scarce cities, and the energy and water demands of the Olympics will be substantial: Approximately 1.2 million cubic meters of snow will be required, necessitating the use of eight water cooling towers and 130 fan-driven snow generators.
“Beijing has become a very water-scarce region because of shifts in the seasonality of storms,” Orr said. “There are longer periods of drought, so the ground can’t absorb as much water, so it disrupts the whole water table. It’s getting drier, and the number of people in the region is growing. For that city to be pulling upwards of 49 million gallons of water to produce snow, that will have downstream implications for everyone else.”
Artificial snow often includes chemical additives to keep it frozen at temperatures above freezing. “Previous research on artificial snow shows it can have a devastating impact on plant and animal life in the region, because you’re introducing a ton of water that wouldn’t have been there otherwise — and, in some cases, the additives,” Orr said.
The reliance on artificially created environments for the Winter Olympics has been growing for decades, in part because of global warming, but also because the International Olympic Committee has been trying to expand the popularity of Winter Olympics by holding them in warmer locations. Artificial snow was first used at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and a majority of the snow at the last two Winter Olympics, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Sochi, Russia, was artificial.
There has also been an increasing shift toward indoor competition, as warmer temperatures have made ice too prone to melting. The last Olympics to hold the speed skating races outdoors were in Albertville, France, in 1992. Olympic ice hockey has been played indoors since 1964.
Viewers at home probably won’t be able to tell the difference while watching the events, except perhaps when cameras pan back to show a larger area not covered in artificial snow. “We’re used to everything covered in white,” Timothy Kellison, another contributor to the report and an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University, told Yahoo News. “It’s going to be a lot easier to see what’s being constructed artificially.”
Even if the changes are imperceptible to the casual fan, athletes say they can feel the difference between artificial ice or snow and the naturally occurring kind. The fake stuff, they say, is not as safe. “Artificial snow crystals are not really crystals, they're balls of ice. It forms a dense, icy snowpack. It’s unforgiving if you fall over,” Lesley McKenna, a former British snowboarder who competed in three Winter Olympics, told Yahoo News.
In addition to the risks of competing on artificial snow, the decreasing availability of natural snow creates safety hazards during training, as athletes may be more inclined to expand their repertoire without having had enough opportunity to practice. “If a snowboarder wanted to learn a big spin — let’s say they wanted to take 360 spin up to 720 spin — it would normally be advisable to spend a whole season to learn that trick and start in softer snow and pick the right days to ride,” McKenna said. “But if their season is no longer November to the end of April, it’s now January to the end of March, they have half as much time, and they will take whatever chance they have. And the only conditions they have may be man-made snow, which is icy and unforgiving.”
Artificially generated ice poses similar risks, according to athletes who play sports on the ice. Rather than being too hard, though, the problem is that ice that has melted due to high temperatures and then been refrozen by an artificial cooling system becomes uneven.
“The quality of the ice for bobsledding does have a tertiary impact on the likelihood of concussions,” Seyi Smith, a former Canadian Olympic bobsledder, told Yahoo News. “The kind of concussion you get from bad ice vibrations is kind of a cumulative thing. If you’re trying to slide when it’s just too warm, and you’re pumping in artificial refrigerants, that will create poor quality ice.”
“You want ice to be smooth,” Smith explained. “It’s easier to maintain smooth ice when the ambient temperature is cold. If it keeps on getting hot and then cold, then it creates bad quality ice. And bad quality ice is bumpy, and if you keep going over bumpy ice over and over, it’s not good for your head.”
Winter sports have always been relatively expensive and inaccessible to the general public. But athletes and experts worry that because climate change is further limiting the places and times in which winter sports can be played, they will become even more rarefied.
“From the Alps to the Pyrenees, the Rockies to the Andes, snow sports fans are reporting shorter seasons, lower snowfall levels and melting glaciers,” the report notes.
“Winter sports are going to be increasingly expensive to deliver and more difficult to access because they are relying on artificial snow and ice making,” Kellison said.
McKenna pointed to her own childhood as an example of relatively easy and affordable access to skiing that may no longer be available. “If you're a young person, and you want to progress in skiing or snowboarding, and your nearest ski town doesn't have snow anymore, you'd have to travel to a higher-up location,” she said. “I'm from the highlands of Scotland, and I went skiing every weekend. I wonder if anybody from Scotland will be able to do that in the future, unless their parents are rich enough to fly to the Alps.”
This is not the only study to observe the effect of climate change on the Winter Olympics. A study released last week that was led by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, found that only one of the 21 cities to have previously hosted the Winter Olympics — Sapporo, Japan — would be able to safely host them again by the end of this century, unless there is a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming.
“The unreliability of past locations being able to host games in the future is unnerving,” Smith said. Because of his concern about the effect of climate change on the Winter Olympics, Smith is running for a seat on the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission this year in Beijing with a platform focused on sustainability. “We need to take more action on mitigating climate change, so we can continue to do our sport,” Smith said.
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