QJScience: Winter Olympic host prospects dwindling?

In less than two weeks, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games will commence in Sochi, Russia. There are few things more exciting than waking up for 17 days straight and not arguing with family members, housemates, or significant others over the TV remote because, let’s face it, not even the Kardashians can compete with the Olympics.

To date there have been 21 winter games in 18 different cities worldwide. However, the future of the games may be in jeopardy, thanks to an all too familiar phenomenon: global warming.

Research by the University of Waterloo and Austria’s Management Centre Innsbruck has concluded that based on the earth’s current rate of warming, 13 of the last 19 cities to host the winter games would be unable to do so by the end of the century. In fact, both Vancouver and Sochi would be out of the running as early as 2050. Calgary, Salt Lake City, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Albertville, St. Moritz, and Sapporo are the six cities predicted to still be climatically reliable to host the Games in the future.

Two indicators were used in this study to classify previous host cities as being climatically reliable, unreliable, or at high risk to be unable to host outdoor winter sports in the future. These were (1) daily minimum temperatures at the main competition elevation for ideal ice and snow conditions, and (2) ability to maintain 30 cm of snow pack (this is the threshold for smooth skiing terrain).

Scientists and organizers are attempting to find technological solutions to the problem, such as snow machines and moving competitions indoors. But even if the snow can be made, it must resist melting for at least some time. Many sports will be nearly impossible to move indoors, which could potentially lead to the demise of some of our favourite events from the Games.

Another related concern brought up since the release of this study is the possible decline in participation of many winter sports as temperatures continue to rise. For example, if it becomes increasingly difficult to find an appropriate location to go skiing, or if it’s eliminated from the Winter Olympics, it’s likely that less and less people will become seriously engaged in the sport.

So once again, climate change rears its ugly head. In fact, nine out of 10 of the warmest years on record occurred in the 2000s, and events related to climate change such as severe El Ninos are becoming more and more frequent. If we don’t work towards the eradication of global warming, we may all too soon lose those 17 days of luxury and be forced to split our TV time between Keeping Up With the Kardashians, ESPN and the Food Network.

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