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Winter Olympics Under Threat From Climate Change: Study

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Russia's Sochi, Canada's Vancouver, France's Chamonix, Japan's Nagano and California's Squaw Valley all have one thing in common: These former and future Winter Olympics venues are each known as prime sites for cold-weather sports, and as breathtaking havens for sporting enthusiasts. But according to a new study, these winter wonderlands are now under threat from climate change and soon may no longer be cold enough to play host to elite winter sports competitions like the Winter Games.

Researchers at Canada's University of Waterloo and Austria's Management Center Innsbruck say that if global warming continues at its current rate, only 10 of the previous 19 Winter Olympics host cities will be cold enough to reliably host the Games in the 2050s. By the end of the century, that number could drop to a dismal six. “The cultural legacy of the world’s celebration of winter sport is increasingly at risk,” said Professor Daniel Scott, a Canada Research Chair in Global Tourism and lead author of the study, per a media release. “Fewer and fewer traditional winter sports regions will be able to host a Olympic Winter Games in a warmer world.”

Troublingly, even if the world takes steps to reduce carbon emissions and therefore lessen the impact of global warming in the coming years, the researchers said that the number of cities that could host the games in the middle and end of the century will still fall dramatically (see the infographic below). By the 2050s, at least four Winter Games venues -- including Sochi, this year's host city -- will be too warm to host the competition, even if active steps to curb global warming are taken.

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winter olympics chart

This infographic presents the researchers' predictions as to whether or not Winter Olympics host cities will be "climatically reliable" to host the Games in the 2050s and 2080s in both a "high emissions" and "low emissions" future. The "high emissions" scenario is likely, the researchers say, if global warming continues at its current rate. The "low emissions" future, on the other hand, can be achieved if the world takes steps to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thus ensuring that global surface temperatures don't rise by more than 2 or so degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That'd be the "best case scenario," Scott said.

Scott told The Huffington Post that he and his colleagues looked at several indicators to determine a location's "climate reliability." Most crucially, they looked at whether or not the daily minimum temperature at a host city would remain below freezing (0 degrees Celcius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit) and whether or not the site could maintain a snowpack of at least 12 inches for alpine events (through both natural snowfall and snowmaking).

If the daily minimum temperature remained above freezing at a particular location, snow and ice surfaces would not "have a chance to recover from greater daytime melt, creating soft and slow surfaces. Additionally, at these temperatures, snowmaking is not feasible to repair snow surfaces, and any precipitation is likely to fall as rain, further degrading ice and snow surfaces with even refrigerated ice degrading," the study says, adding that these conditions would not be "conducive to fair elite-level competitions." Moreover, Scott explained to the HuffPost, snow that is too soft "can also be dangerous for the athletes."

whistler olympics

Albania's Erjon Tola reacts after finishing the first run of the men's slalom, at the Vancouver Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, on Feb. 27, 2010. When Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, a snow shortage forced organizers to bring in bales of hay and extra snow to create the courses for some outdoor events. Climate change was blamed for the snow shortage at the time. Researchers say that Vancouver is one of the many former host cities which will not be cold enough by the 2050s to reliably host the Winter Games.

Though the Winter Olympics was the focus of their study, the researchers insist that it's not just professional athletes who should be concerned by their findings. "There are also implications for the participation in outdoor winter sports in general," Scott told the HuffPost. Not only will winter sport hotspots like Vancouver and Chamonix soon be too warm to competitively ski or snowboard in, but beloved ski spots all over the world are heating up, too.

In New England, for instance, more than half of the 103 ski resorts currently operating will not be economically viable by the 2040s due to snow shortages, according to Scott. "The remaining [locations] will be at higher elevations," he said. "This means that some people will have to drive further to go skiing -- and the question is, will people be willing to do that? Will we still have skiers if they don't have local hills to practice on?"

Last year, 75 Winter Olympic medalists, including alpine skier Julia Mancuso and snowboarder Hannah Teter, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him take action on climate change and clean energy. "As professional athletes, representing a community of 23 million winter sports enthusiasts, we’re witnessing climate change first-hand," the letter, part of the Protect Our Winters campaign, read. "Last year was the warmest year on record, and once again, we’re currently experiencing another winter season of inconsistent snow and questionable extremes. Without a doubt, winter is in trouble."

To learn more about how climate change is impacting the Winter Olympics, check out the full study on the issue here.

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