The Beijing winter Olympics are currently in full swing, but there is no snow falling from the sky. Over the next few decades, climate change and global warming will cause major problems for the future of winter sports. Is it the end of the winter Olympics? Let’s discuss it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
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Phenomenal (adj) – extremely successful or special, especially in a surprising way
Sarah did a phenomenal presentation during yesterday’s meeting
Artificial (adj) – made by people, often as a copy of something natural
He refuses to wear clothes made of artificial fabric
Reliably (adv) – in a way that can be trusted or believed
The soccer team reliably sells 5000 tickets a game
Unstable (adj) – not firm and therefore not strong, safe, or likely to last
It is a poor and politically unstable country
Suboptimal (adj) – less than optimal (the best possible); not very good
The court decided that the police response was suboptimal
Saviour (n) – someone or something that saves someone from danger or harm
The president likes to claim he is the saviour of the nation
Viable (adj) – able to work as intended or able to succeed
I’m afraid your plan is not financially viable
To jeopardise (v) – to put something such as a plan or system in danger of being harmed or damaged
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The 2022 winter Olympics is well under way, with athletes from around the world competing in events ranging from alpine skiing and snowboarding, to figure skating and ice hockey. While the Beijing Olympics has been notable so far for phenomenal athletic performances and the controversy over China’s human rights abuses, there is one thing that has been largely missing – natural snow.
A Winter Olympics Without Snow?
Beijing in the winter is undoubtedly cold – reaching down to minus 15 degrees Celsius on the most freezing days. Yet, cold temperatures do not mean it snows regularly. In fact, the region around Beijing tends to only have two or three days of precipitation (which could be rain or snow) in the month of February. That doesn’t sound like enough snow to host skiing and snowboarding? events, right?
Despite this, the slopes of the Yanqing course just northwest of Beijing are covered in bright white snow, and playing host to the world’s best skiers and snowboarders. How is this possible?
The 2022 Beijing event is the first winter Olympics to almost entirely use artificial snow. Natural snow has not been reliable for major ski and snowboarding competitions for many years. Previous winter Olympics have had to rely on artificial snow to some extent – 4 years ago in Pyeongchang, Sochi, and Vancouver all used artificial snow on mountain ranges due to lack of snow.
However, Beijing is the first city to pretty much exclusively use artificial snow. China’s snow making technology is so advanced now, that the lack of snow has not actually been an obstacle to hosting the games. Beginning in November, the organisers have been constantly producing snow and have machines able to create the perfect snow conditions for different events. There are now 100 snow generators and 300 snow-making guns working all day to keep the snow in perfect condition.
Artificial snow has allowed the Olympics to guarantee consistent conditions. At the same time, artificial snow is a sign that the perfect conditions for winter sports are getting rarer and rarer.
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Climate Change and the Winter Olympics
Even though Beijing is the first Olympic city to rely on artificial snow, it will certainly not be the last. According to a new report, climate change and global warming are going to seriously threaten the future of winter olympics. Already, ski resorts around the world have begun closing more often as mountains have unreliable snow and frequent rain.
Global warming has caused average temperatures to increase around the world. Moreover, winters are warmer quicker than summers, and the colder cities are warming faster than hot cities. Over the next decades, and in the context of the warming world, perhaps only a few cities will be cold enough to host winter sports.
In fact, one of my favourite facts is that the warmest day during the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014 was about 20 degrees Celsius. This was actually warmer than quite a few days at the London 2012 Olympics. That’s right – the winter Olympics were actually warmer than the summer Olympics!
Why will global warming threaten the Winter Olympics?
There are quite a few different reasons. First, as I mentioned already, the number of cities able to host the Olympics will be vastly reduced! 21 different cities have hosted the competition since the first in Chamonix 1924. Experts are now predicting that out of those 21 cities, only 10 will be able to reliably host the Olympics in 2050. Venues in France, Austria, and Norway are now considered to be ‘high risk’; Squaw Valley in the US, Vancouver, and Sochi are seen as ‘unreliable.’
Second, the quality of snow may cause problems for athletes and even prove dangerous. Snow is being replaced by rain, and where it still snows the amount is decreasing. Snow machines produce artificial snow, but according to freestyle skier Laura Donaldson such snow can quickly turn into solid ice and lead to increased injuries. Whereas natural snow is about 90 percent air and 10 percent ice, artificial snow is up to 30% ice. Natural snow is also being negatively affected by the changing climate. Mushy snow and changing ice will make winter sports difficult.
Third, athletes are losing places to regularly practice on real snow. Unstable winter conditions and the decline in snow conditions make it difficult for athletes to get enough practice in before major tournaments. Already, injuries are increasing due to lack of practice and inexperience. According to Philippe Marquis, a two-time Winter Olympian from Canada, “Athletes feel the urge to push their limits even if the conditions are suboptimal.”
Furthermore, it also means that it will be more difficult for new athletes to get involved and learn the sport. Winter sports are already expensive, but in the future they get even more expensive and exclusive. As snowfall becomes less consistent, ski resorts are struggling to stay open and needing to spend more money to operate. Winter sports will soon be limited to only the richest and most elite people. There will be a smaller talent pool from which to select the next generation of Olympic skiers, skaters, and snowboarders!
This will not just lead to a lack of future athletes, but also a reduction in future fans. Without being able to directly experience the sport, fans may be less likely to get interested in the sport and follow the professional events.
Is Artificial Snow the Saviour?
Is artificial snow the saviour of the winter Olympics? Climate change increases the need for artificial snow machines both in professional competitions and even in recreational resorts. Is this a viable solution?
Well, the issue is that artificial snow can be harmful to the environment. Making snow requires a lot of energy and a lot of water. Without sustainable sources for this energy and water, artificial snow will contribute to already existing climate and environmental problems. It is also incredibly expensive – the Beijing Winter Olympics have cost upwards of $3.9 billion!
Artificial snow doesn’t necessarily solve every problem. Beijing is extremely cold, which allows for the artificial snow machines to be extremely effective. Yet this will not always be the case in every winter sport venue. As temperatures increase, snow will begin to melt faster than artificial machines can operate. 12 years ago the organisers of the Vancouver Olympics were faced with an abnormally warm winter. Their artificial snow machines were not able to keep up with the melting snow, which forced Vancouver to use trucks and helicopters to deliver snow from other regions.
The winter Olympics are under threat. This episode of Thinking in English has tried to show how the changing climate seriously jeopardises the future of the tournament. Rising temperatures and decreasing snowfall makes winter sports less reliable, more dangerous, and may reduce the number of future athletes and fans.
Yet winter sports are an important part of the global economy. In the US, for example, the winter sports industry supports 7 million jobs and generates $800 billion a year. It is an incredibly important part of the economy. Perhaps the Olympics are a great opportunity to motivate people to find solutions!
Do you think climate change will cause the end of the winter Olympics? Let me know in the comments!
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