Is Winter Fading From The Olympics ?

Sochi 2014 Olympics

Like many people, I am aware of the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi Russia at the present time. I am not watching them. Not because I do not love the winter events; but because we have chosen NOT to have any commercial television in our home. There is some good content on commercial TV and we lose out on being able to watch that. In the past, I would have loved watching the figure skating events; and now, I would enjoy the snowboarding as well, as my sons mild interest in skateboards has made me more aware of that modern culture.

The Nagano Japan post-game IOC report in 1998 contained the first mention of climate change in the context of the Olympics. The authors of the report said, “The depletion of the ozone layer and global warming are two examples of issues affecting our natural ecosystem on a worldwide scale. Therefore, striving to host the Olympic Winter Games in harmony with nature is especially important, and we ask the IOC and future Olympic Winter Games host cities to pay close attention to the environment.” The pool of locations capable of hosting the games will shrink as the climate warms — and the colder mountain cities that may be the best fit may not have the infrastructure to handle a massive influx of athletes, spectators and organizers. That will force some difficult decisions, making it an interesting dilemma the International Olympic Committee will be caught in.

By 1980, when Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics again, organizers were tinkering with making snow on the alpine ski courses. The practice became commonplace after the 1998 Games in Calgary, and this year Sochi is boasting an armada of over 500 snowmaking guns, one of the largest in Europe. Snow making requires the use of vast amounts of electricity, and the utility bill has now become one of the largest costs for resorts. The act of making snow where coal is used to generate the energy to make the snow is only exacerbating the situation. The good news is that, many ski resorts are increasing the wind, solar and other types of renewable, clean-burning fuel they use for power generation. Plus, snowmaking equipment is increasingly energy efficient. It takes about 150,000 gallons of water to make enough snow to cover an acre of ski trail one foot deep.

Glacier before and after

We need to be more concerned about climate change, whether we can reverse or slow it down, or whether we must adapt and cope with the changes that it will bring into every life on this planet. It does no good to pretend there are no impacts. I remember being shocked at the retreat of glaciers. One can’t help but be seriously impressed that a change is happening in our climate. Already, signs of an unwelcome thaw have appeared at even the highest elevations. This season, the Verbier 4 Vallées resort in Switzerland eliminated two chair lifts after the lower edge of Tortin Glacier, at 2,800 metres elevation, receded by 40 metres in just 15 years.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the snow season has shrunk by about three weeks since the early 1970s and snow cover is projected to decline substantially by the end of the century, according to a report released in September by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Being a casual student of Earth science, I know that the climate has never been a stagnant or stable force in planetary existence. And so, today, I consider that the “winter” environments so celebrated by the Winter Olympics, may become a 100% artificial creation in the future – indeed has already become such, to a great extent. In the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, here in the USA, there is a combined total of 17 skiing areas. A recent study suggests that by 2039, none will sustain a viable skiing season — defined by industry as 100 days or more — even with artificial snow-making.

Typical Snow Cannon in Russia

Typical Snow Cannon in Russia

Skiing is a winter sport that prides itself on being harmoniously in step with the rhythms of nature. But sometimes, it turns out, nature falls out of step, failing to drop enough snow to meet the early demand for skiers. So technology steps in. And what about artificial snow making ? What are the environmental impacts of depending on such methods to create artificial winter sports environments ? A warmer, moister atmosphere will produce heavier, wetter snow, not the dry, fluffy ‘champagne powder’ prized by many recreational skiers. Artificial snow created with snow-making cannons is often icy, perfect for laying the base of lightning-fast competition runs but less favorable for the average skier. And temperatures that skirt the freezing mark increase the risk that precipitation will fall as rain, not snow, and will raise the density of the snowpack.

The fluffy blankets on the trails at the Loveland Colorado resort are largely produced by snow guns using water pumped from nearby streams. Environmentalists have been raising concerns for years, that the ski industry is becoming so reliant on water diverted for artificial snow that fish in rivers and streams might be endangered. “For most skiers, who tend to be environmentalists themselves, this hits a little close to home,” said Lewis Milford, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier, Vt., a private environmental group. “When it comes to environmental damage, we tend to think of the traditional bad guys — mining, logging, ranching. But snow making takes a lot of water out of rivers and streams, in some cases depleting them to dangerously low levels. And this is something we’ve got to face up to.”

The Russians have spent the last year stockpiling snow for the Olympic venues. I can relate to the temperature shock that skiers, snowboarders and other athletes got when they arrived in Sochi, Russia, for the 22nd Olympic Winter Games. When we traveled from Missouri to Hawaii in Nov 2010, we experienced a similar effect. So, the athletes as they traveled into town from the airport, passed rows of palm trees, which thrive in the breezes blowing off the Black Sea. Only 40 km away, on the ski slopes of Rosa Khutor, the Sochi Olympic organizers have spent a year, manufacturing and stockpiling snow as a hedge, against the region’s mild climate.

A group of environmentalists filed suit in the Colorado Supreme Court in an effort to block a planned snow-making expansion by the Aspen Skiing Company at Snowmass. And ski operators in New England have also faced resistance from environmental groups. The growth in artificial snow has been fueled by fierce competition among resorts to provide the deep blankets demanded by customers and to stretch the ski season. The Loveland and Keystone ski areas in Colorado open now nearly two weeks before Halloween. A generation ago, ski resorts typically did not open until after Thanksgiving, often not until after Christmas, unless the mountains were hit with an early storm. Ski resorts in Colorado are now diverting three or four times the volume of water for snow making that they used a decade ago, said Hal Simpson, the director of the Division of Water Resources in Colorado. Even so, the volume of water used for making snow is tiny compared to the amount used for agriculture.

Brown Trout  in a Colorado stream

Brown Trout
in a Colorado stream

“There is an emerging and growing list of compounds [about which] we don’t know the affects”, according to Taylor McKinnon, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. He says, “… we know that endocrine disruptors [in wastewater] will change fish sex ratios. This points to the need for additional research and more advanced water treatment.” Brown trout incubate in the gravel of stream beds and hatch in the spring. The danger of low water flows is that streams could freeze and then rip the fish eggs from the water bed. “It could lower the flow so much that the trout wouldn’t survive,” said Mr. Simpson, “especially since they make snow in the late fall, just when the streams are at the lowest.” But he said he did not believe that snow making had yet caused serious ecological damage.

The Arizona Snowbowl resort in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff AZ would be the first resort in the U.S. to use 100 percent treated wastewater to make snow, it’s a common practice in Europe and in parts of Australia. Experts believe that it does not make people sick nor does it result in contaminates reaching flora or fauna. There are concerns that the water may contain chemical inputs from pharmaceuticals and other potentially hazardous hard-to-trace sources. To avoid the battle over diverting water from streams and rivers, some ski resorts have turned to retention ponds, an alternative that has been praised by environmentalists. The Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow VT built a huge pond for snow making, a pool that covers eight acres and is up to 50 feet deep.

We don’t make snow (we make materials with recycled content – www.yemmhart.com) but we do care about climate change. The last time we skied was at Yellowstone National Park in Jan 2013; and they did not need to make snow. Our family enjoyed cross-country skiing there. Visitors to the park, at that time of year, are brought in groups of 10-12 people, in specialized equipment called Snowcoaches. Snowmobiles have limited access. Founded in 1872, the park takes care of the environment they are entrusted with protecting. For that concern, and the opportunity to ski on natural snow, we are exceedingly grateful.

Yellowstone Snowcoach

Yellowstone Snowcoach

~ Information Resources

“Winter Olympics: Downhill forecast” by Lauren Morello posted at Nature.com on Feb 4, 2014 – http://www.nature.com/news/winter-olympics-downhill-forecast-1.14639

“The Battle Over Artificial Snow” by Dirk Johnson posted in The NY Times online on Nov 14, 1994 – http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/14/us/the-battle-over-artificial-snow.html

“Winter Olympics Inadvertently Adapting to Climate Change” by Brian Kahn posted at ClimateCentral.org on Feb 7, 2014 – http://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-olympics-have-been-a-model-for-climate-adaptation-for-90-years-17041

“The Nasty Environmental Impact of Making Snow” posted at Outside online on Oct 11, 2012 – http://www.outsideonline.com/blog/outdoor-adventure/science/the-environmental-impact-of-making-snow.html

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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