An athlete takes part in a snowboard slopestyle practice session at Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou on Feb. 3, 2022, ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images
- Athletes at the 2022 Winter Olympics are competing on fake snow — and that may become the norm.
- If climate change is not addressed, many locations could be too warm to host winter sports by 2080.
- Fake snow is a temporary solution, but it impacts athlete performance and increases risk of injury.
As skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes in Zhangjiakou over the next few weeks on their quests for a gold medal, they’ll be competing on fake snow.
While artificial snow has made an appearance at the Winter Olympics for decades, the Beijing Games will be the first to completely rely on it — something that’s likely to continue into the future.
Courtesy of Mario Molina
“What people will see on their television screens over the next week — where you have artificial snow being used for all of the sports against the backdrop of winter — is what the normal may very well look like for the Winter Olympics moving forward unless we address climate change quite rapidly,” Mario Molina, executive director of nonprofit environmental group Protect Our Winters, told Insider.
A new report published in January revealed that unless the world takes drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and follow the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement goals, many of the locations that typically host the Winter Olympics will soon be too warm to accommodate winter sports. Of the 21 locations that have previously hosted the Games, only 10 could reliably accommodate snow sports by the 2050s and eight by the 2080s under a “high emission scenario,” the report stated.
Artificial snow isn’t a long-term solution for lack of snow
Courtesy of McKenzie Skiles
Snowfall is decreasing worldwide as air temperatures rise or become more variable and more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, McKenzie Skiles, a geography assistant professor at the University of Utah and snow hydrology expert, told Insider.
“Warmer temperatures also make snow melt faster,” Skiles said. “So we lose snow both at the beginning of winter as it accumulates and we’re losing it earlier in the season to faster melt.”
Zhangjiakou, a city about 100 miles away from Beijing where this year’s Olympic skiing and snowboarding events are held, remains cold but dry, so the city always planned to use snow-making machines. Winter precipitation there has averaged just 7.9 millimeters a year over the past 40 years.
“We can look at Beijing as an example of what the future of the Winter Olympics could be like, regardless of venue, in a warming scenario,” Molina said. Other locations may increasingly embrace artificial snow for future Olympic events, but it’s not necessarily a solution, he added. Artificial snow still needs low temperatures and low humidity for the precipitation to freeze.
Energy and a water supply are also needed to produce artificial snow, which adds an environmental impact. Skiles said many ski resorts use snowmaking ponds, where water is collected and used to create snow later. But without that resource, tapping into a local water supply might be necessary.
Decreased snowfall will likely change winter sports in the future
Artificial snow also impacts Olympic athletes’ performance and can increase the likelihood of injury. “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,” US Olympic cross-country skier Rosie Brennan told NPR recently.
Exactly how climate change will affect the future of the Winter Olympics is tough to predict, and different sports will be impacted differently, these experts said. For example, Skiles said cross-country skiing, which is typically done at low elevations most at risk of losing snow, could move to higher elevations. Fewer locations may be able to host outdoor winter sports in the future, and some places may create indoor skiing venues, like Ski Dubai.
As viewers watch this year’s Olympics, Molina hopes it will raise awareness about how climate change is affecting snowfall and push governments, corporations, and individuals to come together to address the problem.
“The warming is happening now,” Skiles said. “But we still get snow, and skiing is still possible in a lot of places. If we address the worst of the emissions and address the root causes of climate change, we could slow it down and minimize it. It’s not a dire future if we can still take action now.”