Climate Change 'Altering the Geography' of Winter Olympics, Host Cities May Dwindle: Study

As the world continues to learn about the far-reaching consequences of climate change, a new study warns that the pool of potential host cities for the Winter Olympics may be among the casualties.

By the end of the century, just one of the 21 cities around the world that have previously hosted the Winter Games will still be able to "reliably provide fair and safe conditions for the snow sports program" unless countries can dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to the study led by Canada's University of Waterloo. If countries can meet the emission targets designated in the Paris climate accord, eight of the cities would be able to remain "climate-reliable," with only six projected to be considered unreliable.

"Climate change is altering the geography of the Winter Olympic Games and will, unfortunately, take away some host cities that are famous for winter sport," said Robert Steiger of Austria's University of Innsbruck. "Most host locations in Europe are projected to be marginal or not reliable as early as the 2050s, even in a low-emission future."

Siyao Ma from the University of Arkansas said that choosing a city that can offer satisfactory conditions amid rising temperatures may prove to be a problem in the future.

"The International Olympic Committee will have increasingly difficult decisions about where to award the games, but the world's best athletes, who have dedicated their lives to sports, deserve to have the Olympics located in places that can reliably deliver safe and fair competitions," Ma said.

The study, which involved researchers from Canada, Austria and the U.S., looked at climate data from the 1920s up to the present day. It also considered potential climate change scenarios for the 2050s and 2080s.

Additionally, athletes and coaches from around the world were polled on how they felt climate change is affecting sports now and how it could affect sports in the future. Of those surveyed, 89 percent said they felt climate change was influencing conditions for competitions, and 94 percent said they feared that the changing weather will affect the future development of their sport, according to the study.

"We wanted to understand from the athlete's perspective what climate and snow conditions made competition fair and safe, and then determine which Olympic hosts could provide those conditions in the future," said Natalie Knowles, a Ph.D. student and former Canadian skier who was involved in the study.

Last year was the sixth hottest year in recorded history, according to three U.S. scientific agencies, and some scientists have worried that rising temperature rates are accelerating.

Beijing Olympics
Climate change will limit where the Winter Olympics can be held, according to a study led by the University of Waterloo. Above, the Beijing Olympic Tower. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are set to open on February 4. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

About 195 countries committed in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was reached, to limit global warming to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, while aiming for a more ambitious cap of 1.5 C, Reuters reported.

Leaders from the Group of 20 nations reaffirmed their commitment to that agreement and the 1.5 C goal during last year's climate conference, The New York Times reported.

"We remain committed to the Paris Agreement goal to hold the global average temperature increase well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, also as a means to enable the achievement of the 2030 Agenda," the leaders said in a statement.

But the average February daytime temperatures of Winter Olympics host cities have already seen a steady increase. It has gone "from 0.4°C at the Games held in the 1920s to the 1950s, to 3.1°C at Games during the 1960s to 1990s, and 6.3°C in Games held in the twenty-first century (including the Beijing Games)," a press release about the study said.

"Additional 21st-century warming of 2°C to 4.4°C is projected depending on our emission pathways," the release added.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has acknowledged the potential effects of rising temperatures on its Winter Games. Last year, it announced it would be raising its own carbon emissions reduction goals "in line with the Paris Agreement."

"The climate crisis is arguably the biggest challenge humanity is facing," IOC President Thomas Bach said in the announcement. "It is affecting all areas of our lives, including sport of course, as an important part of society. By further reducing our carbon emissions, we strengthen our contribution to the realization of the Paris Agreement, follow the latest science on climate change, and contribute better to this global effort."

Daniel Scott, a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo, said that sports may help drive the commitment to curtailing global warming. "Athletes want to be a bigger part of the solution," he said.