Will Drought and Climate Change Kill the Winter Olympics?

The short-list of 2022 Winter Olympics host cities may not be able to handle the games. Soon, it may be next to impossible to find a city that can.

Zach Bergson

Photo via Wikimedia

In recent years, hosting the Olympics has become less attractive for countries around the world as costs rise and public money is allocated to venues that typically get little use after the Games are over.

Potential host cities are starting to take note, and Oslo, Norway, widely considered to be the frontrunner for the 2022 Winter Olympics, pulled out of its bid last fall citing funding concerns. Money will likely be a worry for the two remaining cities—Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan—but unlike the Sochi Winter Olympics (price tag: $51 billion), exorbitant costs probably won't be their biggest challenge.

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Having enough water will be.

The areas surrounding Beijing and Almaty are sufficiently cold and mountainous to host the games, but both cities get very little natural snow. Making matters even worse, Beijing has few water resources to spare as nearby reservoirs shrink every year.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article and video describing just how difficult hosting a Winter Olympics in Beijing would be. Though parts of Beijing receive approximately 23 inches of rain a year, the ski resorts that would host alpine events have semiarid climates and average 15 to 16 inches.

The resorts, located in areas near Zhangjiakou and Chongli, get less than two inches of snow during February, the month when the Games are held; Almaty averages approximately 12 inches.


To compensate for their lack of natural snow, 11 Beijing ski resorts use about a billion gallons of water a year from a nearby reservoir in Chongli to make artificial snow, according to the Times, enough for 42,000 people.

This is problematic for hosting the Games for a number of reasons. According to a study from the University of Waterloo, in order to have a reliable Winter Olympics with suitable weather conditions there are two key factors that must be met in nine out of 10 winters: a minimum snowpack of approximately 12 inches and a daily minimum temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit .

The former is important because many downhill alpine events, such as the Super-G, require even terrains to operate smoothly, which a 12-inch snowpack—the bare minimum—can provide (depending on altitude, some locations require 24 inches or more). The latter is important because if daily minimum temperatures remain above freezing (32F), the study writes, "snow and ice surfaces do not have the chance to recover from greater daytime melt, creating soft and slow surfaces."

Beijing's venues easily meet the second criteria; their average minimum temperatures in February hover around 12F.

The ski resorts, however, have virtually no natural snowpack and China would have to compensate by using water from its shrinking reservoirs, potentially putting a significant strain on an already complicated water situation in Beijing and the country in general.

China's capital, home to 22 million people, has been experiencing a drought for the past two decades, and has relied on reservoirs, including the reservoir in Chongli that ski resorts use to make artificial snow, to supply enough water for its growing population.

To stabilize the situation, China initiated a $62 billion project to divert water from the historically water-rich south to the north shortly after it received its bid in 2001 for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Late last year the water finally started flowing north, but researchers say it's not a long-term solution.

The south only has so much water to spare, and water pollution has made a large portion of China's drinking water unsuitable for human use.

"When you think about water shortages in China, you should be aware of the huge level of water pollution," Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., told me. "China is probably the only country I know of that has the phrase 'water pollution-induced scarcity.'"

Turner says pollution in China has gotten so bad that 30 percent of its surface water should not come in contact with humans. Agricultural runoff from factory farms and municipal sewage are some of the biggest contributing factors to this situation.

The Chinese government has long avoided enforcing water pollution rules. But earlier this month it unveiled a water action plan, that Turner described as serious, to improve its drinking water supply and increase efficiency. She also added that the initiative is vital to Beijing's bid, because the International Olympic Committee considers environmental impact a key factor when evaluating a host city.

But increasing efficiency is difficult for any nation. Even California, which announced its first ever mandatory water usage regulations earlier this month, is grappling with the correct way to solve its water issues. Turner says technological solutions—such as the water diversion project and desalination plants—are a much easier fix for China than changing water usage habits.

"The water challenge in China is bigger than the Olympics," Turner says. "The public is becoming increasingly concerned about both air and water pollution problems."

Ironically, as China considers using billions of gallons of water to cover its slopes with powder, the Communist Party recently doubled down on a ban against golf to protect its water resources and curtail corruption.

If Turner had to choose between Beijing and Almaty, she says Beijing would be a better choice given the vast engineering resources China has at its disposal.

But given the fact that the IOC amended its Olympic charter in 1996 to include a binding commitment to sustainable development, Beijing would be a curious choice with its unsustainable and partially toxic water supply.

Even beyond 2022, the Winter Olympics appears to be in peril. As temperatures continue to rise as a result of climate change, the minimum temperature benchmark of 32F will be harder to meet. The table below lists the current daily minimum and maximum temperatures in February at all the previous host cities' alpine venues since Nagano, Japan, in 1998.


The University of Waterloo says under a high-emission scenario that the past 19 host cities are expected to experience a 40F increase in average February temperatures by 2080. As you can see in the infographic from the university study below, only 6 of the 19 past sites would have reliable climates with that kind of warming.


We've seen hints of coming climate problems since the Games in 1998. During Sochi temperatures rose to the mid-60s, and officials had to stockpile 600,000 cubic yards of snow; Vancouver had to truck in snow keep its Games going; rain disrupted numerous events in Nagano.

The climate for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, appears to be favorable, but Elizabeth Burakowski, a post-doc at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says the IOC needs to avoid host cities that put the local environment at risk and create dangerous conditions for athletes.

"It's probably not a good idea to be [doing a Super-G] on icy slopes," Burakowski said.

In 2012, Burakowski co-authored a study with Matthew Magnusson of the University of New Hampshire for the National Resources Defense Council that researched the economic impact that climate change could have on winter sports in America. Burakowski's paper says downhill ski resorts in America lost $1.07 billion in revenue between 1999-2010 due to low snowfall, and only "four out of 14 major ski resorts will remain profitable by 2100 under a higher-emissions scenario."

Making matters even worse, temperatures are rising faster in the north.

"What we've seen in the past is winter is the fastest warming season in the northern-mid latitudes," Burakowski says. "Where our ski resorts are today, those are the places that are seeing the fastest recent warming, the northeastern United States specifically."

California's drought has hit its snowpack especially hard; an atmospheric pattern known as the "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge" off the coast of the Golden State is blocking precipitation, reducing its snowfall to a trickle. But even without drought conditions, California winter sports in places like Olympic Valley (also known as Squaw Valley), the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, will struggle given future climate projections.

As you can see below, under a high emissions scenario Olympic Valley's snowpack will be approximately six inches by 2100, compared to 12 in 2020.


IOC officials conducted a five-day inspection of Beijing's winter sports facilities in March, and we should know where the games are headed in 2022 by July. But even if China wins its bid and its "Martian-like plan" to develop its alpine skiing venues works, choosing future Winter Olympic host cities is going to get harder and harder as temperatures and costs continue to rise.