Saturday, February 04, 2012

What happens to winter sports if winter doesn't come?

By New Year of 2010, Vancouver had built its Olympic village. It had built its courses and tracks. However, there was one major missing ingredient for a good Winter Olympics: snow. This had been a problem in 1998, when Nagano - known in Japan for having snow - was running ever-closer to the start of the Olympics without enough powder to actually make it worthwhile. Both times, Olympic organizers were biting their nails (or perhaps had already gotten to gnawing on the skin) when - luckily - their major venture was saved by the timely arrival of the snow. In both cases, the countries were feeling the effects of El Nino (aka ENSO), when precipitation patterns shift and global temperatures rise. Indeed, the fact that it was an El Nino year was pointed out each time, not as an excuse for the weather, but as a frustrating explanation as to why snow-machines might have to be called in to do the heavy lifting (and I remember some punditry about whether this would help or hinder the various outdoor events).

This winter (2011/2012) is taking place during a La Nina (when global temperatures drop), although you wouldn't know it if you were experiencing winter in much of the United States in 2012, especially in the northeast. While the normal trend of La Nina is to have temperatures that are slightly cooler than the surrounding years (save for 1999 and 2000, which witnessed back-to-back La Nina years), this part of the world has seen record warm-spells. To look at the current condition of the US winter of 2012:
For the Lower 48, January was the third-least snowy on record, according to the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University. Records for the amount of ground covered by snow go back to 1967.

Forget snow, for much of the country there's not even a nip in the air. On Tuesday, the last day in January, all but a handful of states had temperatures in the 50s or higher. In Washington, DC, where temperatures flirted with the 70s, some cherry trees are already budding -weeks early.
However, this condition of no snow is only within the "Lower 48":
Valdez, Alaska, has had 328 inches of snow this season - 10 feet above average - and the state is frigid, with Yukon hitting a record 66 below zero over the weekend.

Nearly 80 people have died from a vicious cold snap in Europe, and much of Asia has been blanketed with snow. This January has been the ninth snowiest since 1966 for Europe and Asia, though for the entire northern hemisphere, it's been about average for snow this season.

The weather is so cold that some areas of the Black Sea have frozen near the Romanian coastline, and rare snowfalls have occurred on islands in the Adriatic Sea in Croatia. Ukraine alone has reported 43 fatalities, many of the victims homeless people found dead on streets.
Why is this the case? Because of the unexpected interaction between two north-latitude oscillations:
The reason is changes in Arctic winds that are redirecting snow and cold. Instead of dipping down low, the jet stream winds that normally bring cold and snow south got trapped up north. It's called the Arctic Oscillation. Think of it as a cousin to the famous El Nino.

When the Arctic Oscillation is in a positive phase, the winds spin fast in the Arctic keeping the cold north. But in the past few days, the Arctic Oscillation turned negative, though not in its normal way, Halpert said. The cold jet stream dipped in Europe and Asia, but is still bottled up over North America.

That's because another weather phenomena, called the North Atlantic Oscillation is playing oddball by staying positive and keeping the cold away from the rest of North America. About 90 percent of the time, the North Atlantic and Arctic oscillations are in synch, Halpert said. But not this time, so much of the United States is escaping the winter's worst.
In other words, this warm weather is only really being felt in the "lower 48" states of the US, whereas Europe and Asia are far colder than normal. Furthermore, although the explanation for these causes of a lack of winter in much of the populated areas of North America can be made, it cannot be predicted, especially not when the decision of hosting city is made years in advance.

What if - for example - this were a Winter Olympic year, and the Olympics were scheduled to be in Morristown, Vermont (a state where skiing is normally a major part of winter tourism)? What would that town be doing to take care of not just a lack of snow but also temperatures ~10F (~5C) above freezing? Snow-making machines won't cut it (at least it was below freezing in the snow-less weeks leading up to the Nagano and Vancouver games). Would the games be cancelled - save for the indoor events? Postponed? Who would pay for the incurred costs? What about refunding the ticket sales? It will be far more disappointing to a far greater audience if something like what happened to the Red Bull Linecatcher event in France that was supposed to happen on January 11-18, 2012:
Just four days before the Red Bull Linecatcher was scheduled to begin in France, the event has been canceled due to unfavorable weather in France's Vars region. The event, which had a strong lineup of international athletes scheduled to arrive, was due to be held from Jan. 11-18.

"I feel ashamed to have to give you this news, but we are having really unfavorable weather in Vars right now," said Red Bull organizer Jean-Robert Bellanger. Rushed meetings had been held with the Vars safety guides and tourism office and with a heavy heart, Bellanger was forced to cancel the competition at this late date. "In Vars right now there is just not enough snow that has settled on the Eyssina Face. With sunshine and high temperatures ready to set in this week the decision was made that it would be too dangerous for the skiers."

There was a rumor of a potential change of location, but that was quickly put to rest by Bellanger. "There's just too much that has gone into this location, it's just not possible to change the resort at such a late date," he said.

This news comes as an additional blow to the ski industry, at a time where many American resorts are struggling to get their seasons underway. Europe's winter is off to a slightly better start, with much of eastern Switzerland and Austria getting snow, and resorts like St. Anton currently on hold due to too much snow.
This sort of question made me wonder what the major winter sports organizations are doing to talk about the problems that variable climatic conditions and (by extension) climate change will have on the pursuit (and investment in) their sports. Does the IOC have a position about climate change? Well, there is this report, put out in the lead-up to Vancouver, which seems to focus mostly on the Vancouver games and not on strategies for the IOC in general. Most of the search results for "climate change" and "global warming" on the page are written for or before the Vancouver Olympic games. Worrying.

What about the Winter X-Games? Luckily, Aspen, CO had enough snow to permit the go-ahead of the 2012 X-Games, but if they had been - like in the example above - held in the Appalachians, a greater spotlight would likely have been put on how a combination of a lack of snow and high temperatures will kill international winter sporting competitions.

Who knows, though? Perhaps winter sports will all follow the lead that was taken by skating sports (and curling) and move indoors. Perhaps, then Dubai - with its indoor ski facilities - will be able to host a Winter Olympics... Dubai 2100 anyone?

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