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The Winter Olympics are Melting

The Winter Olympics have been a staple competition for most winter sports for the past 100 years. The games include a multitude of events in a variety of disciplines that are constantly added to. All these events have something in common, snow and cold conditions.

Both of these necessities are in danger due to the looming threat of global warming. A new study found that of the 24 Winter Olympic venues used since 1924, only 10 will have reliable enough conditions to host winter games in 2050. Venues that are at the most risk are also perhaps the most famous. Chamonix, the birthplaces of modern snowsports and the modern winter games is at the most risk along with other famous venues in Austria, and the other Scandinavian countries.

Those spectating the 2022 games might have noticed the strip of white running along the mountain ridge in the hills to the north of Beijing. This is the Yanqing National Alpine Ski Center where the Super G-slalom and other ski events are being held. While temperatures are suitable for the games with it staying in the low to mid-twenties during the day, there is a distinct lack of snow. Almost all of the snow that makes up the Super G track is man-made. While this is quite shocking it is not completely surprising as the area where Yanqing Alpine Center is located is in a drought this winter. This is not ideal considering in a normal year, the area receives on average only 8 inches of snow on average. This increased reliance on snowmaking might become more common in the coming Olympics as fewer and fewer cities have suitable conditions for the winter games. According to CalTech physicist Ken Libbrecht, man-made snow is fundamentally different from natural snow in many ways. As everyone knows natural snow is formed in flakes of microscopic pieces of water that fall through the sky. This time falling through the sky allows the flakes to form the unique shape and characteristics of snow. When using snow machines the flakes have essentially no time to form, making it more ice than anything. When looked at under a microscope the difference is obvious. Libbrecht says “They look like pellets of ice, not like snowflakes at all.” These fundamental differences in the creation of snow make it perform differently than natural snow might. In an NPR interview US Olympic cross-country skier Rosie Brennan commented “Artificial snow also impacts Olympic athletes' performance and can increase the likelihood of injury. Man-made snow doesn't act the same as natural snow. It tends to be much firmer, it gets icier faster, and it's a faster surface.”

In the past, the Olympics venues had the best snow and conditions were always superb allowing the athletes to compete at their best. Unfortunately, unless climate change is kept in check, the Winter Olympics will become increasingly hard to host for most venues. This speaks to the broader issues surrounding climate change. Issues such as snowpack, water scarcity, food production, and economic impacts all play important roles. Though these issues are looming and ominous, many athletes whose sports and livelihood are at risk are taking a stance. Organizations such as POW (Protect Our Winters) sponsor athletes and raise awareness around the world. Athletes such as Chloe Kim are part of the POW athlete alliance and help raise awareness. Another measure many recent Olympic games have taken is attempting to make the game carbon neutral. Although these issues are dire and threatening there is still hope to inspire change and prevent the worst of climate change.

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