There is an old metaphor about the canary in the coal mine; a tale of helplessness, inevitability and advanced deterrent.
For the best part of a century, birds were thrust down into the pits alongside miners – the proverbial sacrificial lambs, their use little more than a living litmus test. If the mine was carrying any methane or carbon monoxide, the canary’s death would occur before the levels of toxic gas could affect humanity – in essence, an early warning of a wider, more serious problem.
The practice has since been curtailed, its cruelty replaced by electronic detectors. The allegory, though, has remained.
And to a certain degree, that is where the winter sports industry sits today – the canary amid a mine of environmental vulnerability. Few sectors in sport are at greater risk of feeling the effects of climate change sooner and more dramatically than one inextricably linked to atmospheric conditions.
“This is not a passing phenomenon – this is long-term, and it is continuing to get worse,” argues Allen Hershkowitz, the founding director of global climate action organisation Sport and Sustainability International.
“Winter sport, along with ocean sport, is the most vulnerable out there. We are talking science – science is not just another opinion. I’m not giving my opinion. Science is not a political view. It has, for quite some time, been telling us that we are destabilising the chemistry of the atmosphere.”
Science is not a political view. It has, for quite some time, been telling us that we are destabilising the chemistry of the atmosphere
Truckloads of snow had to be brought in prior to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics
Today, the world is more than one degree warmer on average than it was in 1850. Crucially, as the planet continues to heat up, so the threat to the snow sports industry rises. Without the requisite temperatures, snow simply cannot exist – whether natural or manmade.
“Snow is what makes these ski areas successful,” emphasises Adrienne Isaac, the director of communications at the USA’s National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). It may be a statement of the obvious, but it comes amid research that serves as an urgent eye-opener for the sector’s future.
A 2018 report, led by University of Waterloo professor Daniel Scott, found that of the 20 cities to have hosted the Winter Olympics, 11 would be climatically incapable of holding the Games by 2080 without a major downturn in the current rate of greenhouse gas releases. By 2050, the likes of Sochi, Grenoble, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Chamonix would all be unsuitable, even with lower emissions.
It is a troubling statistic. While ‘unsuitable’ refers to a lack of climatic stability rather than insufficient snow, the unpredictable future facing alpine winter sports is a pressing concern. Images of once-white peaks consigned to shorter and less reliable ski seasons abound, while reports of ponds and lakes previously frozen for months on end – the breeding grounds of ice hockey players, curlers, speed and figure skaters – melting prematurely paint a similarly worrying picture.
To raise awareness of the issue, Hershkowitz is co-organising an ice hockey match at the North Pole with the support of Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, whose personal experiences, while anecdotal, epitomise the changes facing the industry. “When Niinistö was growing up, they were able to skate on ponds from early November until mid-April,” Hershkowitz says. “Now they get six to eight weeks of frozen ice if they’re lucky.”
For leading glaciologist and Imperial College London professor Martin Siegert, the situation is showing no signs of improving. “There is no mountain range that holds glaciers that isn’t experiencing loss of ice,” he warns. “The expectation is that in the Alps, within a few hundred years and with continual warming, there won’t be any ice left.
“The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is over 410 parts per million right now; it should be 280 parts per million - and in 1850 that’s what it was. What we have done in just 150 years is take part in a strange experiment with our planet. The last time we had 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 3.5 million years ago, when the sea levels were 20 metres higher.”
Chamonix is one of 13 former Winter Olympic hosts whose climate could be too unreliable to stage the Games by 2080
According to a report by the Global Carbon Project, carbon emissions reached an all-time high of 37.1 billion tonnes in 2018, continuing a trend that has seen worldwide atmospheric levels increase for three straight years. In the last 12 months, 80 per cent of all energy investments made by China, the world’s second largest economy, were in fossil fuel industries. According to Niclas Svenningsen, a senior figure at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), climate change fuelled by human activity has become the “defining issue of our time”.
While the fate of winter sports may not rank highly among environmentalists’ concerns, the impacts of climate change, as Scott’s 2018 report suggests, are far-reaching. Their consequences are likely to be felt right across winter sport, from the slopes of the Winter Olympics to recreational resorts.
“Every sport is going to be affected,” stresses Hershkowitz, who was recently hired as the New York Yankees’ first-ever environmental science advisor. “Every sport facility, every sport venue in the world. In Canada, more and more young people have to pay to go skating indoors to get on the ice because the opportunity for free ice on frozen ponds is going away.”
It is a worry shared by Scott – not only with elite sport in mind, but with the future of an industry reliant on the ability of countries to maintain a healthy conveyor belt of young talent.
“It is the snow-based sports where the big issue lies; there is no technological alternative,” he says. “If you don’t have the snow or the snowmaking nearby, you can’t feed that athlete pipeline.
“Once they become competitive and elite athletes, they are travelling the world to find their snow. I think that level will always exist, but it is whether you have the strength of pipeline coming up to sustain it.”
It is the snow-based sports where the big issue lies; there is no technological alternative
Scott’s research highlights a number of trends, but more notable than any other is that the centres of influence within the ski industry are shifting. Traditional winter sports heartlands are facing a challenge if they are to retain their primacy in this changing climate.
Interestingly, the average February daytime temperature of Winter Olympic locations has increased over time – from 0.4°C at Games between the 1920s and 1950s, to 3.1°C during the 1960 and 1990s, and 7.8°C in Games held in the 21st century. During the 2010 Games in Vancouver, many tonnes of snow were helicoptered in, while over the years organisers have fought against conditions not only by making snow, but also by refrigerating tracks.
The 2014 event in Sochi, Scott explains, provides a case in point. He describes the decision to hold the Games in a beach resort popular among summer holidaymakers as “among the more ridiculous choices the IOC has ever made.” The climatic unsuitability left athletes skiing with rolled up sleeves to stay cool. Some complained about the poor snow quality and questioned whether conditions were safe at all.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to Scott’s study, Sochi is among a plethora of former Winter Olympic hosts whose future prospects are under the greatest threat. Without drastic emission reductions, Oslo, Sarajevo, Squaw Valley, Vancouver, Chamonix, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Grenoble, Innsbruck, Turin, Nagano, Lillehammer and Lake Placid would all also be deemed risky Winter Olympic hosts.
China’s ski industry is growing rapidly ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
Of the cities that would be considered suitable, perhaps the most intriguing case is that of 2022 host Beijing. Though by no means a traditional winter sports destination, the Chinese capital could scarcely have picked a more significant time to position itself as a market leader.
Already possessing more than 700 ski areas, many of which are situated north of Beijing on mountainous terrain, China has confirmed plans to have 800 in operation by the time the Games arrive. In 2017, 57 new resorts opened in China, whose annual skier visitor numbers eclipse those of Canada, Norway and Sweden. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has pledged to invest more than US$1.5 billion into infrastructure and the construction of venues.
“We don’t think of Beijing or that area as a particularly strong winter destination and, in part, because winter is their dry season,” Scott explains. “They won’t be blessed with bucket-loads of snow like Austria is getting now, but they are blessed with reliable and regular cold temperatures, so they can make their snow as they want and it will stay.”
Scott’s clarification of Beijing’s attributes is fundamental to understanding the industry’s future. The issue, he says, is not one of snowfall itself, but of temperature. “When it warms up too much, instead of getting buckets of snow, you get buckets of rain,” he explains. “That means you don’t get your natural snow, and that rainfall washes away any snow that you can make.”
Crucially, the production of artificial snow has the potential to provide some relief to the industry. “There is no market where, in this century, snowmaking will cease to work as a provider of snow, even in the warmest areas,” insists Scott.
That assertion will come as music to the ears of Brooke VanderKelen Alba, who leads the marketing department at SMI Snowmakers, which has played a key role at seven Winter Olympics, including last year’s event in Pyeongchang. She says the region in northern South Korea could not have hosted the event without artificial snow; some 98 per cent of the Games’ snow was manmade, emphasising the vital role snowmaking firms will play in future.
“We knew going into it that Korea doesn’t get much snow – we were making five metres of snow for them just so they were able to host the event,” she explains. “What is really important, though, is that they had the temperatures.
“They felt confident enough to host the event because they were investing in snowmaking. It is similar to China; they don’t get much natural snow. But snowmaking just allows different regions to participate that otherwise wouldn’t have been able.”
While snowmaking is nothing new – it has existed for more than four decades – its wider importance to the industry’s future is only beginning to be fully appreciated. Requiring nothing more than water, compressed air and requisite snowmaking temperatures, it has the power, in a matter of minutes, to complete a natural process that might otherwise take days.
It is a crucial fact that hints at what lies in store for major events like the Winter Olympics. While warming temperatures could jeopardise the long-term ability for traditional winter sports hubs to host such occasions, other regions that are shorn of snow but sufficiently cold are likely to play a fundamental role.
There are, of course, other political factors at play, further limiting the options on the table for event organisers such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has seen the Winter Olympics become a less attractive proposition among prospective host nations. Sion, Graz, Erzurum, Sapporo and Calgary, who all showed some interest in staging the 2026 edition, all withdrew from the process at the dialogue stage, leaving Milan-Cortina and Stockholm-Åre as the only two candidates remaining.
By the time the Games arrive in one of Italy or Sweden, it will have been 16 years since the festival of winter sport was held in Vancouver – the last time the Games took place in one of the sector’s historical strongholds. It is the type of figure that could well become the norm.
With the exception of Turkey’s Erzurum-fronted bid, the other four nations represented in the early running for 2026 had hosted the Games before. But it is Calgary’s exit from the process, which came following financial difficulties and a public referendum, that particularly troubles Scott. The 1988 Games in the Canadian city were iconic, with the event introducing the world to Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and the Jamaican bobsleigh team – two of the Games’ most enduring stories, both of whom have since become the subjects of cult films.
“The IOC is struggling to find places that want to host these things because of the cost,” Scott says. “If you combine that with a high-emission future, you may only be left with – as a worst case – about eight reliable places among those previous hosts. And of those eight, Calgary just said ‘no’.
“So that could be off the table for non-climatic reasons. This means that even some of your reliable climate locations could say ‘no’ for other economic reasons. Then you are left with fewer locations and the big question [is]: if not our traditional hosts, then where?”
Edwards (left), whose ski jumping performance at the 1988 Games made him one of the Winter Olympics’ most famous names, is similarly concerned by Calgary’s withdrawal.
“I was in two minds,” he admits. “From an athlete’s perspective, I was really excited about the prospect of bringing the Games back to Calgary. But then there is the taxpayer inside me who just thinks ‘it isn’t worth it’. Why spend US$6 billion when they could spend that money on hospitals, on disease treatments?
“For a host to spend US$2 billion each time for the infrastructure to build all these things, why not just build them once and then use them for 20 years or rotate around the world rather than expecting the hosts to stump up the money to build it all?”
As well as embracing ‘new’ powers in Eastern Europe and Asia, Scott – like Edwards – believes the answer lies in stepping away from one of the Olympics’ greatest traditions. Sharing the burden of the Games across multiple hosts may be the way forward, he says. Quebec City, for example, has previously expressed an interest, but it lacks the required elevation for an Olympicstandard downhill track. Why not hold the indoor events there, and take the snow sports to Vermont, just south of the Canadian border?
Why spend US$6 billion when they could spend that money on hospitals, on disease treatments?
The idea has been mooted before, and it is a question that Scott poses as he mulls the future of the event. “Rather than just one country hosting, you could see it becoming a case of a regional host,” he suggests. “It might mean taking the indoor stuff further away from the ski slopes, but that might be what’s necessary to keep it viable.
“The geography of the dominance of the Winter Olympics will change over the next generation – it is just a matter of to what degree.”
In a sense, the long-term effects of such a shift could be two-fold – not only restricted to host nations, but also to the medal table itself. Of the 12 cities whose viability to host the 2080 Games would be in doubt, the top five medal-winning nations of all time – Norway, USA, Germany, Austria and Canada – are represented. Climate change could thus bring new countries to the fore, not least the host of the next edition.
“We will see the real emergence of China just by virtue of the sheer number of people and the new facilities that they will have,” Scott predicts. “The equivalent of their high schools are being teamed up with some of their ski schools and other winter sport facilities as part of developing that pipeline. They are using this coming Winter Games as a driver of that.
“Similarly, some of the former Russian republics – if their economies improve – will go from strength to strength. I think we will see dominance re-emerging in Eastern Europe, too. Then you might see a wane of some of the previous powerhouses. Some of their facilities will become more marginal, that local pipeline may not be there and they have other sports they can do as well.”
Sochi’s coastal climate made for subpar racing conditions in 2014
As the reliability of ski seasons diminishes, however, the industry remains proactive in ensuring that winter sports can continue to flourish. Many ski areas in the US, where the NSAA works alongside more than 300 resorts, have expanded their offerings to become four-season operations, with summer mountain recreation now a vital – and weatherproofed – source of income.
“When you run a weather dependent business, it is helpful to know when you can expect to open and close,” says Isaac. “What we have seen [is that] climate change has made that a little bit more difficult. It is very easy to sit back and fall into an apathy of despair, where the problem seems so big that you can’t do anything about it.”
But there is a ray of hope, especially given the issue of climate change is a global one, increasingly tackled on a universal scale. A 2016 report by the University of Colorado stated that climate change could cut US ski resort winter seasons by 50 per cent, but that the adverse impact could be lessened by a global effort to reduce emissions.
For Svenningsen, much of whose role focuses on liaising with businesses and brands, developments in recent years bring cause for optimism. “We are seeing a rapidly increasing willingness,” he says. “There have always been a few frontrunners who have recognised this both as a threat, but also as a business opportunity.”
The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, published in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that global temperatures must be restricted to a rise of no more than 1.5°C up until 2050 if the effects are to be significantly reduced. Yet that target is reliant on a zero-carbon society for the 20 years between 2030 and 2050. For Siegert, that leaves a major dilemma.
“How does winter sport thrive in a zero-carbon world?” he queries. “How do we deliver the changes that we know we need and are so visible in places where winter sports take place? It’s not something we can duck our heads in the sand and pretend isn’t happening. It is happening.”
Bales of hay were used alongside artificial snow at the Vancouver Games
There are many doing their bit. A growing number of organisations, such as investment firms and financial services companies, have committed to divesting their interests in carbon-heavy, environmentally hazardous industries. In many corporations, clear directives have emerged, with action plans in place for reducing emissions.
“It is about the concrete actions being undertaken to reduce their carbon footprint,” Svenningsen states, “be it by changing the materials that they use or the manufacturing process, changing the way that transport is being done, changing the way that goods and services are recycled or disposed of.”
Yet changing environmental policy and practices remains a major challenge. Across the globe, the capitalist diktat of financially rewarding short-termism tends to carry far more weight than the longterm necessity of altering a long-held culture.
“The problem is that politically, everyone just wants to look after the next election and companies are looking at their economic performance for this year rather than in ten years’ time,” Svenningsen suggests. “For many organisations, they view their purpose as being sports or businesses, rather than climate action or environmental work. They have this short-sighted approach, where they don’t really see that if they don’t engage in this part of the solution, then they are part of the problem.”
While the snow sports industry is generally working to decarbonise, some argue that the sector must look closer to home. It is, of course, a sector that relies on an environmentally damaging combination of international air travel and heavy machinery, such as snowplows and chairlifts, whilst fuelling tourism in mountainous regions - all of which have accentuated the issue.
It is a debate nevertheless rejected by Scott, who argues that human nature makes the tourism sector more complex. “You have to look at the tourism system as a system,” he explains. “If the 250,000 people that do local ski visits can’t do it where they used to, what do they do? They’ll have to fly halfway across the country or to Europe. Their carbon footprint goes through the roof.”
For many organisations, they view their purpose as being sports or businesses, rather than climate action or environmental work. They have this short-sighted approach
It is an issue of which the winter sports industry is acutely aware, and to its credit efforts to counteract the problem are being stepped up. It is no coincidence that Gary Bettman, the National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner, is the only head of a major professional sports league in North America to have spoken on television about the need to affect change and the importance of solar energy.
Similarly, in areas almost wholly dependent on snowmaking, much of the emphasis is placed on ensuring that the process remains climatically sensible, even amid ever-reducing pockets of snowmaking temperatures. Many ski areas have offset their production with renewable energy, while some resorts are even generating their own renewable resources on-site.
As VanderKelen Alba explains, SMI is equally focused on playing its part. “We would rather buy another snow gun and take advantage of your temperature windows than use any additive that might raise the freezing point so you are able to make snow in warmer temperatures,” she says.
Beyond the industry, however, there is still work to be done in educating the masses, not only in what is at stake, but in what role they can play in affecting positive change. In that sense, sport possesses a hugely significant role.
Just two per cent of the snow at PyeongChang 2018 was made naturally
“There is no question that not enough people understand what’s going on and the seriousness of what’s going on,” Hershkowitz stresses. “All these animals used as mascots by professional teams – the tigers, the sharks, the bears, the lions, the rays – they are all in danger through climate change.”
Hershkowitz suggests that close to 80 per cent of the US population follows sport, while just 16 per cent follows science. His point is simple: sport has the power as a platform to entice people to make the required changes.
“We need to promote climate literacy, we need to promote environmental literacy,” he adds. “Sport can do that in a nonpolarising way. If someone is living in Manchester and Manchester United are telling them something, they know they are getting that information from a non-political source – they trust it.”
With the global political climate perhaps more divisive than at any time in recent history, sport remains a unifying force. Far-reaching decisions such as the controversial move by Donald Trump – who Hershkowitz describes as “the most scientifically illiterate president in the history of the US” – to withdraw his country from the Paris Climate Agreement has only increased the burden on others to raise awareness.
As Svenningsen says: “If we pretend that it’s business as usual, there will be no winter sports industry in the second half of the century. Apart from artificial rinks and slopes, the winter season would be very short and very uncertain.”