Graph from “The Future of the Winter Olympics in a Warmer World” (2014), courtesy of Daniel Scott et al.
It was 61°F today in Sochi, Russia. Olympic organizers have begun shoveling stockpiled snow onto race courses.
It was -27°F this morning in the two-time Olympic host village of Lake Placid. But winter-sports organizers here are paying attention to how Sochi is coping with high temperatures because Sochi is our future.
The graphic above doesn’t tell people in the Adirondacks anything new, but it shows us what we know in a startling way. It depicts 19 past winter Olympic sites and how suitable they’d be to host the games in a warming world. At first glance, Lake Placid (seventh column from the left) appears to be one of the more “climate reliable” locations. But, when you consider that global greenhouse gas output is doubling on a high-emissions path and shows no sign of slowing, Lake Placid is on track to become “high risk” around 2080. That’s well within the lifetime of snow-loving kids currently skiing, skating and sledding all over the Adirondacks.
Researchers at Ontario’s University of Waterloo and Austria’s Management Center Innsbruck studied climate data provided by the IPCC and the World Meteorological Organization. Their new report focuses on two major factors to determine whether former winter Olympic sites would be “climatically reliable” to host the competition again: the probability that daily temperatures would stay below freezing, and the probability that a site could maintain a snowpack of at least 11.8 inches. If a location met both criteria for nine out of 10 winters, it was considered climatically reliable.
Lake Placid, host of the 1932 and 1980 games—the latter often called “the last small-town Olympics”—seems to have no aspirations of hosting another winter games, mostly because logistics have grown beyond the scale of Adirondack roads and other infrastructure. But the Olympic legacy has become the foundation of a way of life, identity and economy.
Like a lot of people, I am deeply invested in the future of snow in the Adirondacks. We live here in large part for access to good skiing and long winters. I also dedicate a lot of time to equipping a cross-country-ski center in Saranac Lake for the future. Our grassroots volunteer group has done the math, and we think places like Old Forge, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake only stand to attract more skiers and pond-hockey players over the coming half century, as lower-latitude and lower-elevation places lose their winters. And with eight athletes representing New York’s North Country in the 2014 Olympics (six skiers and two sliders), local participation in winter sports is booming. What type of winter recreation will be available here 75 years from now? That may depend more on adaptive technology than weather.
Of course, more than skiing will change. Brook trout are already getting warmed out of some Adirondack waters, flood zones are getting wider, logging seasons shorter, and higher temperatures are opening the region to organisms that alter the composition of the forest and fishery. But some skiers talk about moving away from the Adirondacks, out West, to a higher elevation and more reliable snowpack. To paraphrase Wildlife Conservation Society ecologist Jerry Jenkins, a guy who loves to ski and who studies the many ways climate will affect the Adirondacks: Baseball is nice, soccer is nice. But winter sports are fast, winter sports are exhilarating.
Editor’s Note: This is Mary Thill’s last post for the Natural Life blog. She has accepted a grant-writing position at the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Adirondack Land Trust, based in Keene Valley. We wish her the best in her new endeavor!