Lack of snow, warm temperatures, gusting winds, rain, extreme cold and other various extreme weather conditions aren’t new to FIS or IBU competitions, but this season that is about to end has surely been the most disrupted season in history, with seemingly endless problems, and the trend looks incredibly bad. This is no longer the odd strange event that you can dismiss as natural variation in conditions from winter to winter. The climate crisis now poses an imminent threat to the future of winter sports, and snow sports in particular (ice sports generally happen indoors or at refrigerated sliding tracks).
As someone who is admittedly obsessed with winter sports, I’m perhaps quite well positioned to talk about this; despite living somewhere that has never received a lot of snowfall and is now totally devoid of the white stuff thanks to our rapidly warming climate. When you watch a lot of these events, you pick up on the random weather immediately, especially if you’re already acutely aware of how weather patterns are changing globally. Almost every event I watched this year, there was some telltale sign. No snow in the background, above average temperature, winds gusting and blowing leaves all over an alpine race piste (should there be leaves in the middle of winter?), and so on. The number of events where I didn’t notice something strange, out of hundreds, I could probably count on one hand.
Probably the most clear example this year would be the Olympics in Beijing. Totally reliant on snow machines to put on the event, the pictures of the mountains with narrow strips of fake snow running down them where the race tracks were prepared were defining images of the games. But while it was presented as a clear sign of the impact of climate change, the reality was that the venue was never a good choice for a winter games.
It was picked because China was determined to host a second Olympics in Beijing, just 14 years after the 2008 summer games. So I would suggest that it was more symbolic of humanity’s arrogance than the changed climate. The arrogance to bid for a Winter Olympics that they knew at the time would be entirely reliant on snow making for the event to work is mind blowing. The fact that the IOC accepted it, even more so. I remember hearing about the winning bid in July 2015 and thinking it sounded odd that they would choose a summer location to host a winter games. I knew at that point that the climate was becoming problematic for winter sports, so the idea that conditions would be suitable for snow sports in 7 years time seemed absurd to me. But it wasn’t absurd. They weren’t worried about snow conditions because they were picking a place that barely got snow to begin with. It was just pure arrogance that human civilisation could engineer and consume its way out of anything.
This mindset is also a huge part of the problem in the regular snow sports seasons. The shock of lack of snow seems to have gone, replaced with a dogged determination to keep holding events no matter what. Keeping the sponsorship money coming in and keeping the circus rolling along in the short term is the primary focus. Most people in winter sports seem to be in a state of denial at what’s happening. Every time there’s some kind of unseasonal warm day or slushy snow, the commentators laugh it off and act like it’s some aberration that means nothing. A beautiful warm spring day to be enjoyed, rather than an imminent threat to their way of life. Maybe in the back of their minds they are thinking that, but the denial runs deep as far as I can tell. The fake snow is almost like the covid vaccine. It’s like a safety blanket that gives people an excuse to act more recklessly than they would otherwise. A way to block out the overall trend of warming and disruption because it’s too unpleasant to consider. Just like how people hide behind their covid vaccine rather than accept covid infections being at a record high. I’m sure most people think that there is no danger to winter sports because they can always top up natural snow with machine made crystals. There are surely some who think that even if there is no snow at all, they can just make it like they did in Beijing. Firstly, China has the money to throw at things like this right now for big events, and the regular World Cup events do not. Secondly, it uses huge amounts of precious water (and wastes electricity). And of course the fake snow can either not be made or will melt if the temperatures are too high to begin with.
At the end of the last couple of winter seasons, I’ve had concerns that cross country skiers could be on roller skis come November. But this year my concern has stepped up from saying it mostly to shock people into action, to actually being legitimately worried that it might come true. If you look at the simultaneous record heatwaves in the Arctic and Antarctic, the seabed sinkholes caused by thawing permafrost, and the spiking methane in the atmosphere, it’s easy to see how this summer could be disastrous and lead into a winter season with very limited snow.
Obviously, if all of these trends keep accelerating, then we will have a lot more to worry about than just the future of winter sports, but it would be a kind of canary in the coal mine to finally wake the world up to how bad this climate predicament really is. In theory anyway. It seems like nothing will wake us up at this point.