Defrosting the Games: The impact of climate change on the Winter Olympics Media Brief

Feb 13, 2014 - 10:00am

The Olympic Winter Games kicks off this week in Sochi, just as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gears up for the March release of its latest report on climate change impacts and adaptation. This report would build on one released in September 2013, which reconfirmed that the world is warming, and that glaciers, ice-sheets and sea-ice are retreating at a fast rate due to human activities.

The implications of warming winter months, decreased snow cover, and ice extent are unmistakable for winter sport and the Winter Olympic Games.

How will climate change affect the Games?

Since it commenced in 1924, the Olympic Winter Games has grown to be a major cultural event, with events broadcast to over 200 countries reaching a potential audience of 3.8 billion people.

While weather-risk management strategies (snow making and storage, indoor venues, refrigerated tracks and ski jumps) have allowed some sports to buffer themselves from unfavourable conditions, they only go so far in helping the Games adapt to a warming world.

A recent study from the University of Waterloo found that only six out of the 19 locations that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics would have a climate suitable for hosting them again in the late-21st century.

The former host cities are likely to be 4.4°C warmer by late-century affecting daily minimum temperatures and the depth of snowpack. Among the cities that would no longer fit the climate bill is Vancouver, a popular ski destination with major resorts like Whistler, as well as this year’s host city, Sochi.

Australia’s own snow woes

Diminishing snowfall has been a growing problem for snow sports in Australia as well.

Satellite data compiled by UNSW Climate Change Research Centre in 2012 showed the maximum extent of Australian snowfields has reduced by up to 39 per cent over the past decade, with the spring melt starting a month earlier.

Griffith University studies have shown that by 2020, the Australian Alps could lose around 60 per cent of their snow cover. Other studies predict the ski slopes could be mostly bare of natural snow by 2050.

With the loss of snow, Australia is set to lose:
  • A snow tourism and services industry worth around $1.8 billion, which employs some 18,000 people.
  • Some 800,000 visitors to snow regions per year.
The decrease in snow cover also has a profound impact on spring and summer water supplies and critical agriculture areas like the Murray-Darling Basin that depend on water from the Australian Alps catchments for around 30 per cent of its inflow. That water – worth as much as $9.8 billion a year to the national economy – supports around 2.1 million Australians and helps produce 45 per cent of Australia's irrigated agricultural production.

Australian training grounds

Despite being far from the traditional home of winter sports in Europe and North America, Australia has a remarkable record at the Winter Olympic Games. In fact, Australia has competed in every Winter Games, bar one post-World War II, since 1936. There have been over 200 Australian Winter Olympians, who have brought home five gold, one silver, and three bronze medals. 

As snowfall in the Australian Alps becomes less reliable, many winter athletes will have to spend more time training overseas. These include defending gold medallists Lydia Lassila (Freestyle skier who currently trains at Mt Bulter, VIC) and Torah Bright (snowboarder who currently trains at Perisher, NSW).

For more information    

Kristina Stefanova | Communications Director, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299

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