Olympic Skiers’ Fear: The Beginning of the End for Snow Sports?

Kaylee Weil By Kaylee Weil

Appeared first on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media by fellow Team Climate writer Taylor Rees and independent journalist Kristin Moe

SOCHI, RUSSIA — Mother Nature hasn’t been so reliable recently. Olympic officials in Sochi, tasked with ensuring sufficient quantities of snow for the winter games, aren’t taking any chances on her either. They’re making their own snow.

The process started more than a year ago: Sochi produced 500,000 cubic meters of artificial snow last winter — enough snow to fill 200 Olympic swimming pools — and stored it under enormous reflective tarps. Haunted by the specter of the last winter games in Vancouver (when warm temperatures meant that snow had to be helicoptered in), they’re probably right to worry. News representatives covering the events from many parts of Sochi routinely are seen on international audiences wearing light sweaters — no hats or gloves needed.

Lack of snow has been a major concern for athletes in every winter sport. Recently, Yale’s “Team Climate” caught up with three members of the U.S. Nordic ski team to talk about their experiences adjusting to a warming world, and their fears about the future of skiing.

Noah Hoffman, the top-ranked distance skier in the U.S., has been on the slopes of Loveland, Colorado, since he was two years old. He remembers a time when snow was a sure thing: “If there wasn’t snow by Thanksgiving, it was an odd year.

Now, you’re always grateful when snow comes, because you’re never sure it will.”

Teammate Taylor Fletcher agrees. Just 23, he’s already noticed big changes since he’s begun competing internationally. “The conditions have been getting worse and worse,” he says. Venues, particularly for World Cup events, “don’t have the same amount of snow each year, and it’s been getting warmer.”

Warmer temperatures mean that these venues, both for training and competition, are relying increasingly on artificial snow — something that’s raising the costs of an already expensive sport.

Teammate Ida Sargent has been cross country skiing since she could walk. Now, having won two World Championships, she’s excited about the Olympic games. She says that 100 percent natural snow is almost a thing of the past. “Almost every single race that I competed in this year was on at least some manmade snow,” she says, and many used only manmade snow.

So the athletes increasingly find themselves restricted to training on two-kilometer loops. Not only are these loops smaller, but they allow course designers and the athletes less flexibility, freedom, and room for creativity.

“It’s basically too warm to make snow in a lot of places where our events are held, so they truck it in from hundreds of kilometers away,” says Hoffman.

He vividly remembers a 2012 competition in Poland: “We were skiing on a 2k loop of trucked-in snow! It was pretty dirty.” Locals told him that they previously always had had natural snow. “It was kind of scary,” he says.

As global temperatures rise, one solution might be to seek out venues that are higher and therefore colder. But for Nordic cross country skiers, that’s not an option: they’re not allowed to compete above an altitude of 1,800 meters. In his home state of Colorado, Hoffman says, there’s not a single venue left within the legal limit.

Is this the future of winter sports?

Part of the allure of skiing is the exhilaration of exploring a new place: a quiet, pristine woods under a fresh layer of snow. Each of these skiers says that their love of nature is bound up in their love of skiing, that the two are inseparable.

These athletes are already hooked on skiing. But they wonder whether new, young skiers will be turned-off by the monotony of doing repetitive loops around a circular track. Sargent says, “I don’t mind going out to train on two kilometers of manmade snow. But I think it loses appeal for the recreational skier who just wants to enjoy the outdoors.”


Kristin Moe is an independent journalist. She writes about the human dimensions of climate change and is partnering with Team Climate to help bring environment into the Olympic conversation.

Olympian Andy Newell Takes the Lead on Climate Change

Bo Uuganbayar By Bo Uuganbayar

Appeared first on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media by fellow Team Climate writer Tom Owens

SOCHI, RUSSIA — Andy Newell might be the U.S.’s best shot at cross country gold in the Sochi Winter Olympics. According to the US Ski Team, Newell has three world cup podiums and was recently ranked fifth in the world at sprint Olympic emblem.

For those with a passion for cross-country skiing and a concern about the impacts of a warming climate, Newell is also among the sport’s leading spokespersons on climate change. Over the past year, Newell collected signatures from winter sports athletes calling on world leaders to tackle the challenges posed by the issue.

While training in Park City, Utah, for instance, Newell would set up a table outside the training facility and talk to other Olympic hopefuls. By last September, he had gotten 33 signatures of support from other winter sports athletes. He then contacted writer and activist Bill McKibben, 350.org founder, and the two discussed how athletes could advocate more effectively for climate change solutions.

Newell then set up a website, Athletes for Action, to house and promote climate change and weigh potential strategies with fellow winter sports athletes and enthusiasts. “As someone who spends their life outdoors,” Newell has said, “it’s my responsibility to help remind everyone of what’s at stake especially to the folks in Government who can do something about it.”

Members of Yale’s “Team Climate,” comprised of five graduate students, caught up with Newell recently, and in an interview he said skiing conditions are already changing and competitions are becoming harder to plan. “There have been so many instances in the past 10 years where our early season competitions have been delayed or canceled due to lack of snow, or our spring and summer training disrupted because of erratic weather. All you have to do is turn on the news or look outside and it’s pretty obvious that uncommon climate is causing a lot of problems and disasters these days.”

Prospects from a Warmer Climate: Indoor Skiing?

In the Olympic Games in Sochi, machine-made snow is again becoming the new training norm for many competitive skiers. “Nowadays in order to hold a world cup ski event in November or December, we are racing on some kind of man-made snow even in northern countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden,” Newell said. “It’s common for Nordic athletes to train on glaciers during the summer months, but in recent years the summer skiing on glaciers has become very unstable due to a lot of them melting away. Places such as Eagle Glacier in Alaska and the Dachstein Glacier in Austria are places that I’ve personally seen change in the last decade.”

With less snow, and less predictable snow fall, some countries have resorted to skiing indoors in artificial ski tunnels, Newell said. “There is currently one in Germany, Finland, and Sweden, and I fear that skiing inside will become the norm in the future, which is a scary thought.”

The Future of Winter Sports in a Warmer World

Bo Uuganbayar By Bo Uuganbayar

This article first appeared on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, by Team Climate writer Bo Uuganbayar

A University of Waterloo report projects far fewer places worldwide will be suitable for hosting the Winter Olympics as global temperatures continue to increase.

(Source: “The Future of Winter Sports in a Warmer World,” p. 4)

“The Future of Winter Sports in a Warmer World” cautions that warming as predicted by scientists by mid-century could eliminate nearly half of recent host cities as suitable venues. The study maintains:

“It would simply not be cold enough.”

A university press release summarizes key messages of the study, and a Popular Science article suggested readers envision a world without Winter Olympics.

“The cultural legacy of the world’s celebration of winter sport is increasingly at risk,” said Professor Daniel Scott, lead author of the new study.

“Fewer and fewer traditional winter sports regions will be able to host an Olympic Winter Games in a warmer world.”

“What are really at risk are the outdoor events, the ones that require snow. You can’t refrigerate a ski run.” Scott said. “The only thing that’s allowed a place like Sochi to hold the games are those kind of weather risk-management strategies that have been developed.”

Olympic temps

The climate suitability of the past Winter Olympics venues given different IPCC emissions scenarios (Source: “The Future of Winter Sports in a Warmer World,” p. 6)

“Despite technological advances, there are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can cope with. By the middle of this century, these limits will be surpassed in some former Winter Olympic host regions.”

Graphics developed in the report outline key points about the prospects for future Winter Olympics in a warmer world:

#1: Average winter temperatures at the Winter Olympics venues have increased dramatically over the past three decades.

#2: In the past few Olympics, energy-intensive equipment like snow machines and refrigerators have become standard tools for managing risks posed by lower temperatures.

#3: Even if global greenhouse gas emissions are held in check, the best case is that 10 of the past 19 host locations would be climatically viable to host a future Olympics.

Will Snow(-less) boarding be the New Norm in a Warmer Climate?

Bo Uuganbayar By Bo Uuganbayar

This article appeared on the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, written by Team Climate writer Bo Uuganbayar

In 2002, 13-year-old Elena Hight became the first woman to land a 900 score in competitive snow-boarding. In the decade-plus, she has accomplished lots more in the sport to be proud of.

Already a two-time Olympic medalist, Hight competed in the X-Games last year and she became the first snowboarder ever to land what in the sport’s Superpipe competitions is known as “a double backside alley-oop rodeo.”

The outdoors has always been a priority of Hight’s, passionate about the environment and worried about how climate change is affecting her profession.

Taking a break during a recent busy training schedule, Hight spoke with “Team Climate” members about her personal views on climate change.

“I definitely have seen the impacts of climate change, just especially over the last few years.”

“I’m from Lake Tahoe and our winters have gotten so much shorter and drier and warmer than they were ever were before.”

She says the warming trend she observes on the slopes of Lake Tahoe are evident in many other parts of the world. “I’m lucky enough to be able to travel all over the U.S. and across Europe, and in the summer time we go to the southern hemisphere because it’s their winter.

“I definitely see the trend of warmer, shorter, drier winters.”

She sees professional winter sports competitions getting cancelled around the world for lack of snow. The Audi FIS Alpine World Cup City Event in Munich, Germany, scheduled for January 1, 2014, was cancelled because of unseasonably warm temperatures and forecasts for more of the same. There are no plans to reschedule it. It’s one of a number of recent examples of winter sporting events being cancelled — and along with them the loss of those revenues — because of warmer temperatures.

It’s the second consecutive year that the Munich race had to be cancelled for lack of sufficiently cool temperatures and snow.

Asked if snowboarding professionals and their suppliers frequently discuss climate change, Hight replied, “We haven’t really gotten together as a group and discussed it, but it’s very clear that the effects are due to climate change. The only reason why they didn’t have enough snow is because it’s been so warm and very, very unseasonably warm, and dry. It hasn’t really snowed at all this season yet — in a place that has been known for big heavy winters and lots of snow. It’s definitely very apparent to all of us in our industry.”

Hight acknowledges being concerned too about how temperatures will play out in the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Hight says professional events are being cancelled or rescheduled given a lack of adequate snow. “We actually just had a contest cancelled within Lake Tahoe, and it was actually moved to Colorado because the resort in Tahoe didn’t have enough snow to build the features for us,” she said. The explanations for the cancellation, she said, “weren’t directly related to climate change, it was more that they related it to a bad snow season. But it’s definitely a concern across the board of whether that will happen again this season.”

Hight is practical in considering potential consequences of climate change on the winter sports that are both her passion and her living. “I think that our economy, in the snowboarding industry, is definitely directly affected by climate change,” she said. “The less snow there is, the fewer people want to buy products to go up on the mountains and buy tickets to go snowboarding, and that is what fuels our entire sport, so I definitely think it is a concern.”

She says she thinks the news media could better cover implications of climate change for winter sports. Although “there are definitely some advocates” for climate change awareness in her industry, she said, she has “definitely not noticed enough” media attention on the issue.

She is forthright too about the contradictions posed by her own profession. “We do have a large carbon footprint as athletes and snow athletes and I think it’s all about the little things that people can do that can make a big difference.”

Will Going for the Gold Put Sochi in the Red?

Kaylee Weil By Kaylee Weil

With less than two weeks until the Opening Ceremony, there is a mad dash to finish what some Russian news outlets have dubbed the “construction site of the century.” I want you to take a second to think about money. Think big. Think about the cost of hosting the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a subtropical region. Think about creating and stockpiling snow. Think about building not one, but two Olympic Villages – one on the coast, and another in the mountains 30 miles away. Think about laying the infrastructure. Think about constructing 42,000 new hotel rooms. Now add all those costs up. What number do you get? The final cost is estimated to be more than $51 billion. When Russia won the bid in 2007, it was projected to cost $12 billion.

Sochi may turn out to be the most expensive Olympics in history, surpassing the $43 billion final cost of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Keep in mind that Winter Olympics host 15 sports, the Summer Olympics 26. How do you even fathom $51 billion? A BuzzFeed article helps put it into perspective. It’s enough for 20 Mars Rover missions, at $2.5 billion each.

It’s more than Apple’s quarterly revenue, at $37.5 billion.

It’s nearly five times Hollywood’s domestic box office, at $10.8 billion. In Sochi, they spent that much on a 30-mile road connecting the coastal and mountain venues. It’s more than the nominal GDP of 108 countries. It’s more than enough to buy all 32 NFL teams. It’s nearly 18 Oprah Winfreys.

Why does this Olympic Games have such a high price tag? Depends on who you ask. Boris Nemtsov, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Sochi in 2009, says as much as $30 billion has disappeared through corruption. Nemtsov commented on the $10 billion that disappeared into the construction of the 30-mile road. “You could have paved this road with five million tons of gold or caviar and the price would have been the same.” He’s exaggerating, of course. It only equals 250 tons of gold or 2100 tons of caviar according to my calculations. Allison Stewart, a Master’s Candidate at the SAID Business School at Oxford, studies megaprojects like the Olympics, their costs and cost overruns. She says that Olympics tend to have cost overruns of about 180% on average. For Sochi, the overrun is now 500%. She also notes that relations between the government and construction companies appear closer in Sochi than in other games. Bribery and corruption have long pervaded the construction industry. But Stewart believes that in Russia corruption is not a side effect of the Games, it’s the main event.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge believes that the money spent on Sochi infrastructure is justified. “You have to put it into proportion,” Rogge said. “The organization of the games is not going to cost a lot of money. But the government has wished to develop the whole area. You cannot just take the cost of the train and the tunnels and the road into the cost of the Games because this tunnel and the train and the road are not meant for two weeks of competition, they are meant for generations to last.”

Even if the construction projects are completed before the Opening Ceremony, there are questions about the weather. Sochi’s subtropical temperatures average around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in February. Skeptics have raised concerns about snow levels on the slopes, citing the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver. To disguise the lack of depth, crews raked artificial snow over hidden hay bales to build elements for various courses. Helicopters ferried in buckets of snow to the snowboarding site. Sochi does not want its lasting image to be one of helicopters and hay bales. They have been storing snow since last winter with the help of a Finnish company called Snow Secure.

It’s estimated that half of the 450,000 cubic meters of stored snow will melt before the Olympics.

The leftover snow, along with the prepared snow from 400 snowmaking machines, will be enough even in the unlikely event that no natural snow falls this winter. The price sticker on snow storage? $11 million. Half of which will melt away before February.

“It’s obvious that there is still a lot of work to be done to get ready by the opening ceremony,” said a Russian businessman. “The sense of urgency is palpable and the local motto is, ‘Failure is not an option.’”

During Putin’s November inspection of Sochi’s work sites, he made it clear that he expected them to work straight through the final day of the Paralympics in March. “We have the New Year and Christmas holidays ahead of us. I’d like to say, I think it should be clear for you, New Year’s will come… on March 18,” he said. “Everyone working on this massive, grandiose project must understand this.”

The 2014 Winter Olympics mark the start of a decade of big sport in Russia, with Formula One next year and the World Cup in 2018. One thing’s for certain. Putin knows a legacy-defining opportunity when he sees one.

Climate Change and the Polar Vortex

Bo Uuganbayar By Bo Uuganbayar

The record-breaking cold fronts in many parts of the US this January have been making headlines in the media. The winter storm ‘Hercules’ has disrupted more than 100,000 travelers across the country, many of whom have been rushing to make it home after the holidays. Fans braved -30˚F weather to cheer on their favorite football team in Green Bay, Minnesota. The National Weather Service called the cold “life-threatening.”

Extreme weather events like winter storm ‘Hercules’ doesn’t alter the clear trend of warming across the globe. In a recent online Time Magazine article, Brian Walsh synthesized an important take home message.  “It could be that melting Arctic ice is making sudden cold snaps more likely—not less.”

There is a distinction between weather and climate and this difference needs to be addressed. Weather is the tracking of atmospheric changes within a given region from day to day. Climate is what is happening in the atmosphere over long periods of time. Winters in the US and in many part of the world have been steadily warming over the past century.

Not only has there been a clear historical trend of warming winters, but the warming has been accelerating in the last few decades.

Walsh explains, “not only does the cold spell not disprove climate change, it may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. even more likely.”

Walsh writes, “Global warming is sometimes thought of more as “global weirding,” with all manner of complex disruptions occurring over time. [The recent] events show that climate change is almost certainly screwing with weather patterns in ways that go beyond mere increases in temperature—meaning that you’d be smart to hold onto those winter coats for a while longer.”

Protect Our Winters

Kaylee Weil By Kaylee Weil

Jeremy Jones is a professional freestyle snowboarder. He started skiing at age three and snowboarding at age nine. He pursues big-mountain powder and untouched terrain, following his passion and encouraging others to do the same. His adventures have taken him all around the world. As he traveled, he started noticing changes in the landscape. In an interview with Climate One, Jones tells the story of Chamonix, France, the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. “There’s a famous glacier that runs down the valley bar,” Jones says. “It’s a well-traveled ski run. They built a train, I think in 1920, to take you from the end of the glacier back to town. And then they built a chairlift to take you from the end of the glacier to the train to get back to town. And now it’s an hour walk from the end of the glacier to get to the chairlift to get to the train.” When Jones realized that the glacier had receded a few hundred yards up the valley, he was shocked.

“Glaciers aren’t supposed to move that fast.”

Jones has noticed a trend on his expeditions: warmer winters, less snow, and generally poorer snowboarding conditions. The culprit, he says, is climate change, and it’s not just affecting skiers and snowboarders. The $67 billion snow sport industry employs over 600,000 people. With so many livelihoods at stake, Jones realized that he needed to do something. He knew he had developed a network of skiers and snowboarders around the world. It was time to “come together and collectively protect our winters.” He founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to uniting the global snow sports community to take action against climate change.

Jones came up with the idea for Protect Our Winters (POW) in 2007. But he realized that without environmental or business training, he would need some help to make it a reality. To set the plan in action, he turned to longtime friend and advertising agency executive, Chris Steinkamp, who helped develop the foundation for the organization. They started with a website and PR strategy. Thirty minutes after launching the website, POW received its first donation. “The community stepped up right off the bat,” says Steinkamp, Executive Director of POW. “So many people jumped at the chance to finally do something.”

Jones saw an opportunity to educate and motivate winter sport enthusiasts. Over 23 million people participate in snow sports in the United States. POW engages this community through resort partnerships, grants, educational initiatives, community activism, and films. In partnership with The North Face, POW created the Hot Planet/Cool Athletes initiative in 2011. Professional athletes speak in high schools around the country, educating students on climate change and hoping to inspire them to take action. By 2013, POW athletes had spoken to over 20,000 students at 42 high schools around the country.

I had the opportunity to talk to Chris Steinkamp about his work. Some of his favorite moments are when POW hears from young supporters. They recently received an envelope from a 9-year-old with $2 in it and a letter saying, “I really love what you guys are doing. Thank you so much for doing it. Also, can you send me a sticker?” Steinkamp said moments like this really help remind him that he’s doing the right thing.

POW is also taking the climate change conversation to Capitol Hill. Steinkamp says that when POW started, it was all about convincing people to change their light bulbs, carpool, and switch to reusable water bottles.

Now it’s clear to him that only policy changes will make the real difference.

Steinkamp admitted that he “never thought [he’d] be lobbying in Congress, but that’s where POW ended up because it’s where we’ll have the most impact.” In 2011, a small group of winter sports advocates, including snowboarding legends Gretchen Bleiler, Chris Davenport, and Jones, delivered a letter to Capitol Hill. The letter, signed by over 500 professional athletes and members of the winter sports industry, urged Congress to protect the power of the EPA and the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. This October, POW brought 17 professional athletes and representatives from leading snow sports brands to Washington D.C. They hand-delivered a letter to the White House in support of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon from industrial power plants.

To back their political efforts, POW worked with The National Resources Defense Council to develop a report titled, “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.” This report places an economic value on winter. It details the effect that warmer winters will have on economies in small communities that thrive on ski resorts, sledding hills and other snow activities. POW hopes that putting this “price tag on winter” will help support their cause with policymakers.

Porter Fox, the editor of Powder Magazine, describes the effect of climate change on winter sports in an interview. “This is way bigger than…recreational sport,” Fox says. “This is about snow as part of the climate cycle on the planet and part of the water cycle and an incredibly important resource on earth. When snow starts to disappear, there is this line of dominoes that falls down.”

Winter Is Coming to Westeros

Bo Uuganbayar By Bo Uuganbayar

This blog originally appeared on the Yale FES Environment Blog

Game of Thrones fans, take note. Winter is coming to Westeros but we may very well be facing another reality.

Winter. We looked forward to it as kids as we counted down the days to school vacation. It’s what cheers us on as adults as we dive into mountain-loads of work  — the promise of December, crisp air and powder snow. The thrill of skiing, snowboarding, sledding down slopes.  The patience required to build a snowman. What if we can’t share these childhood memories of winter with the next generation?

Warmer temperatures – caused by the build up of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere – have significant effects on ice and snow. Athletes Jeremy Jones and Gretchen Bleiler summed it up best when they wrote: 

“There is an uneasy feeling that winter, as we know it, is on borrowed time.”

Team Climate is working on raising awareness for the impacts of climate change on the winter sports community. Our team members, Diana Madson, Taylor Rees, Tom Owens, Kaylee Weil, and myself, all come from various academic backgrounds and are bringing a diverse set of experiences together to mobilize the global winter sports community around climate change.

Diana is a second year Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) student at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES).  Her research examines climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions in Western mountain resort communities.

Taylor, also a second year MEM student, is focusing on environmental communication and media.  She comes from a background in media campaigns and film production. She is program manager of the Yale Environmental Film festival.

I, Bo Uuganbayar, am a second year MEM candidate with a background in economics and renewable energy. My research focuses on natural resource management and corporate sustainability in the developing world. I’m particularly interested in tapping into crowd-sourced solutions to solve large-scale environmental problems.

Tom, a third year MEM student, is focusing on public policy and coalition building to shift the US from fossil fuels. Tom is one of the many co-founders of PowerShift, a climate change conference that has trained 35,000 young people to organize in their communities and apply pressure for Congress to act.

Kaylee is a fifth-year MEM student. Her research focuses on environmental communication, and she is working with companies to develop powerful ways to communicate their environmental messages to the public.

Climate change impacts are directly affecting the winter sports community and the US economy. The snow sports industry is has over 23 million community members, generates an estimated $66 billion in revenue, and supports close to a million jobs in the US. In partnership with Protect our Winters (POW) and with support from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, we are bringing the climate change discussion to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

We believe that the Olympic Games are the perfect forum to build a coordinated media campaign to reach new audiences, reinvigorate the climate change discussion and highlight the important connection between winter sports and climate change.

We hope to shift the mainstream media coverage around the Olympics to include a discussion of climate change. We plan to raise climate change as an urgent issue in a new context, outside of traditional, technical conversations, and engage audiences in a creative, meaningful and interactive way. We will mobilize the global winter sports community around climate change and tell the personal stories of athletes, spectators and winter enthusiasts.

Before February, our team will be developing our website and creating original content, including blog posts, short videos and interviews. We will be utilizing social media to draw attention to the climate change story and engaging with athletes and local spectators to help them tell their personal stories.

We’re looking forward to sharing our story with you!