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Energy & Environment

How climate change is complicating the winter Olympics in Beijing and in the future

Chinese performers dance during a ceremony to mark the arrival of the Olympic flag and start of the flag tour for the Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 at a section of the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing on Feb. 27, 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Chinese performers dance during a ceremony to mark the arrival of the Olympic flag and start of the flag tour for the Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 at a section of the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing on Feb. 27, 2018. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

The winter Olympics are set to begin Feb. 4 in China, conjuring images of winter: snowy ski mountains, the frosty breath of figure skaters, bobsledders clapping their hands to stay warm.

But a changing climate is making this harder to pull off — both in the present and the future.

Porter Fox, author of “The Last Winter: The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World,” has trekked the world in search of all things winter.

He used the alarming phrase “The Last Winter” to tell the story of what he’s seen firsthand — a winter that’s shrinking. In the U.S. alone, Fox says winter season lengths will likely shorten by 50% over the next 30 years.

“The rate of warming has tripled in the U.S. West since the 1970s,” he says. Snow now doesn’t make landfall until mid-December as compared to October, he says, and the warmth of fall and spring eats away at winter’s bookends.

In British Columbia, the snow skiing season is already significantly shorter than it was decades ago, Fox reports in his book. Recent winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sochi, Russia, and PyeongChang, South Korea, had to utilize human-made snow, he says. Beijing’s snow for the winter games will be 100% human-made.

Snow was trucked and helicoptered into Vancouver for weeks before the Olympics began there in 2010, Fox says. In Sochi, human-made snow was placed on 500,000 cubic meters of real snow that was preserved from previous seasons, he says.

Fox is looking to the future of the winter games in 2026 in the Italian Alps, where he traveled to write his book. The point of going there was to document the speed at which glaciers and snow were melting and the devastating impacts on the land and livelihood of locals.

“Just the Marmolada Glacier, which really was just the queen of the Dolomites of the Southern Alps range, shrank by a third and saw its surface area reduced by a fifth in just 11 years between 2004 and 2015,” he says. “It’s just getting worse.”

Daniel Scott at the University of Waterloo conducts studies before each winter Olympics — and his most recent one is bleak, Fox notes. By the 2080s, Scott’s study finds only one metropolis out of the 21 cities that have hosted the winter games in the past will be able to hold the games again. That city is Sapporo, Japan, he says.

The changing climate has broader existential impacts and global ramifications than just on winter sports like the Olympics.

While writing his book, Fox focused on a statistic that shocked him: “So much snow has melted from the poles on this planet that the rotational axis of Earth has shifted,” he says.

Other implications include how drinking water for 2 billion people around the world will be altered, how much permafrost will melt and release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and the drastic rate of sea-level rise, he says.

There’s a glimmer of hope in Scott’s research, Fox points out. If countries were to follow the Paris Climate Accords’ low emission standards, there’s potential for the climate to remain as it is now.

“You can’t reverse this melting and a lot of it is baked in,” Fox says, “but we can avoid a lot of the massive melt scenarios that we’re looking at in the future if we could stick to that Paris Agreement.”

Fox dedicated his book “The Last Winter” to his young daughter. He’s been telling her tales of his days as a kid bundling up to play in the snow, going cross-country skiing and skating on frozen ponds in Maine.

He wants her to know that winter can be “a powerful communion with nature” — a season we should not take for granted.


Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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