So long Sochi: cities set to be too hot to host Winter Olympics

Warming temperatures will make it hard for many Winter Olympics host cities - including Sochi - to hold the Games again. Flickr/Samsung Tomorrow

Only six of the previous 19 Winter Olympics host cities would be suitable to host the Games again by the end of this century due to warming temperatures, according to a new analysis.

Average February maximum daytime temperatures at the 19 former Winter Olympics host cities have risen from 0.4°C in the 1920s to 1950s, to 3.1°C in the 1960s to 1990s, and 7.8°C in the 2000s to 2010s.

The research was conducted by scientists at the University of Waterloo in Canada, using historical data from weather stations near Olympic venues, as well as regional projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The current host city of Sochi will be among the worst-hit, alongside Grenoble, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Chamonix. But Vancouver, Squaw Valley, Sarajevo and Oslo will also be climatically unreliable.

Even as early as the middle of this century, with current warming trends, only about half of the previous 19 host cities would have suitable conditions to hold the Games again.

A risk assessment of Sochi and past Winter Olympics cities, and their suitability to host the Games again under various future climate scenarios. University of Waterloo, Canada, CC BY

“We analysed several climatic indicators and two turned out to be significant for assessing the suitability of a location to hold Olympic snow or ice outdoor competitions: probability of having a snow depth of at least 30 centimetres natural and man-made snow, and probability of daily minimum temperatures being below 0°C,” said study co-author Robert Steiger, of the Management Center Innsbruck in Austria.

By the end of the century, the research suggests conditions at previous Winter Olympics host cities will experience rain, melting of snow and bad ice conditions more frequently.

“At some places, having enough snow could become the exception rather than the norm”, said Dr Steiger.

Sochi is set to be one of the most affected Winter Olympics cities. Flickr/Samsung Tomorrow

Future planning

Professor David Karoly, an expert in climate change variability from the University of Melbourne, said the study’s results show that snow reduction and climate change will need to be taken into account when planning Winter Olympics venues.

“Lower elevation sites are likely to be particularly affected, as a warming climate makes the snow cover much reduced and more variable first at lower elevations,” he said.

Professor Karoly said that while enhanced snow making is one alternative to minimising the effect global warming has on the Games, it is a short-term solution.

“Another option is to choose higher elevation sites and to use them in the peak of the winter snow season, usually February, like this year, not in early spring,” he said.

However, Professor Karoly believes that a better solution to reduce the weather impacting the Games is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

“Global warming due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions will mean that the number of suitable sites for the Winter Olympics will be dramatically reduced by the middle of the century.”

Roger Jones, climate change researcher at Victoria University, questioned the merits of looking at past host cities, and suggests it is more important to look at what venues might be needed in the future.

“This study doesn’t look at that. Which locations would be suitable? Which countries could bid, if the Winter Games were still being held in 2100?” he said.

That might mean holding future Games in places that are very remote today, Jones suggested.

“I think there’s nothing to worry about in terms of an absolute threat to the Winter Olympics, but quite a bit to plan for.”