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How climate change could threaten the Winter Olympics

Under a high-emission scenario, only one of the previous 21 Winter Olympic host cities will be able to offer a safe and reliable games by the 2080s
The mountain's woes with snow from the 2010 Olympics could ripple across the globe over the coming decades.

Climate change will narrow the number of places worldwide that can host the Winter Olympic Games and threaten the event as we know it, a new study has found. 

In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Current Issues in Tourism, researchers from Canada, Austria and the United States banded together to understand how elite snow sports would survive a changing climate. 

To do that, they pulled historical climate data in 21 cities that have hosted the games since its debut in Chamonix, France, in 1924.

Next, the researchers surveyed nearly 400 elite athletes and coaches in snow sports events such as alpine skiing and freestyle snowboarding. Between the athletes and climate data, the researchers created a set of indicators to measure unfair and unsafe conditions at past Olympic Games. 

"These elite athletes will go out there no matter what sometimes. We're trying to save these athletes from themselves a little bit," said Daniel Scott, the study's lead researcher from the University of Waterloo. 

A total of 89 per cent of the coaches and athletes felt changing weather patterns already affects competition conditions; 94 per cent said they fear climate change will impact their sport in the future. 

"Some were concerned. Some are fearful of the future of their sport. Those places where they train under threat. That's at the back of their mind," said Scott.

Of the previous 21 games, nine were reliable under baseline conditions, according to the athlete-driven metric.

To see how things will change in the future, Scott and his colleagues then layered that information into models using a low-emissions scenario, where the world meets the Paris Accord targets, and a high-emissions scenario, where carbon output follows today's trends. 

Under the low-emission scenario, the number of reliable hosts remains almost unchanged throughout the twenty-first century — nine out of 21 remain reliable in the 2050s, and eight could still offer safe and fair games into the 2080s.

"If we get to a low emission future, we preserve a lot of what we know as the winter Olympics," Scott told Glacier Media. 

But under the high-emissions scenario, that all changes. If atmospheric carbon levels continue to soar, the city of Sapporo, Japan, will be the only city capable of hosting reliable, safe and fair games by the end of the century, says Scott.

The University of Waterloo researcher said he's been tracking how climate and winter sports have co-existed since the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. 

"We were watching hay bales getting put down and helicopters bringing in snow," he said. 

Across the world, Scott says the mountains near maritime-influenced cities like Vancouver, B.C., and Oslo, Norway, will continue to face a growing challenge with winter snow. 

"It's the snow sports that are really at risk," said Scott. 

The researchers did not consider sports like hockey and skating events, which can be held inside.

Other cities dominated by more continental climates, like Salt Lake City, Utah, will face less severe declines in the ability to host a safe and reliable Olympics in the future. 

Scott says the research opens up some paths to re-imagine future games. If the world can't reduce its emissions, countries could consider hosting joint games. 

Picture several Rocky Mountain communities banding together across Canada and the U.S., or Italy and Austria putting forward a joint bid, said Scott. 

Alternatively, host cities near the sea might have to partner with a mountain resort further inland than planners are used to.

The situation is not without precedent — when France hosts the summer game in 2024, surfing events will be held nearly 16,000 kilometres away in the French Polynesian Island of Tahiti.

Wherever the world's climate system and Olympic snow sports converge, one thing is likely, says Scott: it's time to start planning for a very different status quo. 

"They may have to look at some new areas of the world," he said. "They'll be options, but there'll be fewer of them."