Olympic Skiers’ Fear: The Beginning of the End for Snow Sports?

Olympic emblem

Artificial snow is a crucial part of the Sochi Winter Olympics, where newscasters and attendees often are seen sporting clothing more suited for warmer weather than for the bone-chilling temperatures now spread across much of the eastern U.S.

SOCHI, RUSSIA, FEB. 12, 2014 — Mother Nature hasn’t been so reliable recently. Olympic officials in Sochi, tasked with ensuring sufficient quantities of snow for the winter games, aren’t taking any chances on her either. They’re making their own snow.

The process started more than a year ago: Sochi produced 500,000 cubic meters of artificial snow last winter — enough snow to fill 200 Olympic swimming pools — and stored it under enormous reflective tarps. Haunted by the specter of the last winter games in Vancouver (when warm temperatures meant that snow had to be helicoptered in), they’re probably right to worry. News representatives covering the events from many parts of Sochi routinely are seen on international audiences wearing light sweaters — no hats or gloves needed.

Lack of snow has been a major concern for athletes in every winter sport. Recently, Yale’s “Team Climate” caught up with three members of the U.S. Nordic ski team to talk about their experiences adjusting to a warming world, and their fears about the future of skiing.

Noah Hoffman, the top-ranked distance skier in the U.S., has been on the slopes of Loveland, Colorado, since he was two years old. He remembers a time when snow was a sure thing: “If there wasn’t snow by Thanksgiving, it was an odd year. Now, you’re always grateful when snow comes, because you’re never sure it will.”

Teammate Taylor Fletcher agrees. Just 23, he’s already noticed big changes since he’s begun competing internationally. “The conditions have been getting worse and worse,” he says. Venues, particularly for World Cup events, “don’t have the same amount of snow each year, and it’s been getting warmer.”

Warmer temperatures mean that these venues, both for training and competition, are relying increasingly on artificial snow — something that’s raising the costs of an already expensive sport.

Teammate Ida Sargent has been cross country skiing since she could walk. Now, having won two World Championships, she’s excited about the Olympic games. She says that 100 percent natural snow is almost a thing of the past. “Almost every single race that I competed in this year was on at least some manmade snow,” she says, and many used only manmade snow.

So the athletes increasingly find themselves restricted to training on two-kilometer loops. Not only are these loops smaller, but they allow course designers and the athletes less flexibility, freedom, and room for creativity.

“It’s basically too warm to make snow in a lot of places where our events are held, so they truck it in from hundreds of kilometers away,” says Hoffman. He vividly remembers a 2012 competition in Poland: “We were skiing on a 2k loop of trucked-in snow! It was pretty dirty.” Locals told him that they previously always had had natural snow. “It was kind of scary,” he says.

As global temperatures rise, one solution might be to seek out venues that are higher and therefore colder. But for Nordic cross country skiers, that’s not an option: they’re not allowed to compete above an altitude of 1,800 meters. In his home state of Colorado, Hoffman says, there’s not a single venue left within the legal limit.

Is this the future of winter sports?

Part of the allure of skiing is the exhilaration of exploring a new place: a quiet, pristine woods under a fresh layer of snow. Each of these skiers says that their love of nature is bound up in their love of skiing, that the two are inseparable.

These athletes are already hooked on skiing. But they wonder whether new, young skiers will be turned-off by the monotony of doing repetitive loops around a circular track. Sargent says, “I don’t mind going out to train on two kilometers of manmade snow. But I think it loses appeal for the recreational skier who just wants to enjoy the outdoors.”

AUTHORS

Taylor Rees is a graduate student at Yale and one of five Yale grad students comprising the Team Climate effort at the Winter Olympics to help increase visibility and awareness of climate change issues. Kristin Moe , an independent journalist who writes about the human dimensions of climate change, is partnering with Team Climate.

 

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