If Current Climate Trends Continue, the Winter Olympics Will Have Nowhere to Go

By the end of the century, only Sapporo, Japan, will be eligible to host the winter games if global warming continues at its present pace

Four female snowboarders compete on a course.
Four snowboarders compete in the Women's Snowboard Cross final during the FIS Ski Cross World Cup 2022, part of a 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games test event.  Wu Diansen / VCG via Getty Images

Climate change may dramatically alter the Winter Olympics by the end of the century. Of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Games in the past, only Sapporo, Japan, would reliably provide safe and fair conditions for athletes if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced by the end of the century, a new study in Current Issues in Tourism finds. 

Under the current progression of climate change, 14 cities would be considered “unreliable” and six would be “marginal” in terms of snow safety by the 2080s, per NPR’s Jaclyn Diaz and Michael Levitt. However, if countries can hit targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement, most places can continue to safely host the Games without interruption. 

"Under a low-emissions future in the 2050s even the 2080s, we don't really see much change in terms of those climate reliable locations," study author David Scott, a climate scientist at the University of Waterloo, tells NPR. "We pretty much keep all of what we have today."

An Olympic cross country skier avoids a crash between two others.
Several skiiers crashed during the women's 15-kilometer cross country skiing race at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. Many top athletes fear crashes will become more common with the increased use of artificial snow. AP Photo / Andrew Vaughan, CP, File

The authors also surveyed elite athletes and coaches from 20 countries, and found that 94 percent fear climate change will impact the future of their sport. 

"With warmer weather, there's less snowfall, so we're much more reliant on man-made snow," Rosie Brennan, a United States Olympic cross-country skier,  tells NPR. "And man-made snow doesn't act the same as natural snow. It tends to be much firmer, it gets icier faster and it's a faster surface." 

Artificial snow can be more dangerous for cross-country skiers, especially if they fall outside the course, where rock and mud replace snowbanks, reports Martha Bellisle for the Associated Press. Many athletes say crashes are becoming more common, per the AP. 

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games, which begin February 4 in Beijing, will be the first to rely entirely on artificial snow, per Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt. China may need as much as 2 million cubic meters of water—enough to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools—to create enough fake snow for this year’s Games, Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg, tells Bloomberg.

Last year was the fifth hottest year recorded on Earth. The seven hottest years on record have been within the past seven years, the New York Times’ Raymond Zhong reported earlier this month. Warming weather makes training for snow sports difficult because conditions are constantly changing from season to season

“No sport can escape the impacts of a changing climate. Achieving the Paris Agreement targets is critical to save snow sports as we know it and ensure there are places across the world to host the Winter Olympics,” Scott says in a statement