Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Global Warming and the Salt Lake City Olympic Bid

Soldier Hollow Olympic Venue, March 13, 2016
Today's Salt Lake Tribune features an article discussing how global warming could affect future Winter Olympic Games.  Salt Lake hosted the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and is considering a bid for 2030.  It is my view that solely from a climate perspective, Salt Lake City is one of the best places to host the Olympic Winter Games as the vulnerability of our snow climate to warming is considerably lower than many other locations that have hosted the Winter Olympics.

I have had the good fortune to attend two Winter Olympics (Nagano and Salt Lake City), contribute to the weather support effort for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and participate in meteorological training or consulting activities for several others (Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010, Pyeongchang 2018, and Beijing 2022).   Weather-risk management is critical to the Olympic effort, from ensuring spectator safety to executing fair and safe competitions.

Today, as many competitions as possible are held indoors to reduce weather vulnerability.  Figure skating was once an outdoor competition, something that seems laughable today.  In 1980, Eric Heiden won 5 speed skating gold medals on an outdoor track in Lake Placid.  No contender for Olympic Games host would ever propose an outdoor speed skating competition today.  Even if the climate would support it, indoor facilities allow one to tune knobs and produce faster ice, something that is a high priority for Olympic competitions.

However, there are some competitions that still must be held outdoors.  They include alpine skiing, biathlon, bobsleigh, nordic skiing, freestyle skiing, luge, nordic combined, skeleton, ski jumping, and snowboarding.  Even here, technology is brought to bear to ensure high quality competitions.  Bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton tracks are refrigerated and snowmaking is used to ensure adequate coverage at other venues.  Sochi resorted to stockpiling of snow from the winter preceding the Winter Olympics in case things really went south.  I suppose it is only a matter of time before Abu Dhabi proposes to host a completely indoor Olympics with refrigerated facilities, but for now, some competitions need to be held outdoors.  In case you are wondering, this would be a "tall" order, since the minimum vertical drop of an Olympic downhill is 800 meters (2,625 feet).

The vulnerability of potential Olympic hosts to global warming varies.  Salt Lake City benefits from a relatively cold, continental climate, high-altitude venues, and abundant natural snowfall.  This year provides a stress test of sorts, with an extreme drought and mild temperatures.  Although non-ideal if this weather were to persist into February, the traditional month for Winter Olympics competitions, the Games could still be held.  In 2030, the planet will likely be warmer than today (baring a major volcanic eruption or decrease in solar output), but the odds of not having snow at the outdoor venues in Salt Lake are very low, with one possible exception, discussed below.

Geography and tourism researchers have examined the vulnerability of past Winter Olympic hosts to global warming.  The analysis relies upon climate sites near to outdoor venues rather than specific climate information for each outdoor venue, but it provides a reasonable intercomparison of host vulnerability.  It also attempts to account for snowmaking.

Below are their estimates of the probability of having a snow depth with snowmaking of 30 cm (12 inches) on 1 February under the "current" (1981-2010) climate and low and high greenhouse gas emissions scenarios through the 2050s and 2080s.  30 cm is considered the minimum needed in smooth terrain for many competitions.  The most vulnerable sites are Sochi, Garmish-Partenkirchen, and Squaw Valley.  Salt Lake is one of the more resilient sites with this model predicting a 100% likelihood of 30 cm or more snow with snowmaking even in 2080.

Source: Scott et al. (2015)
The study above is based on a number of models, and thus I would be cautious saying Salt Lake City has a 100% chance of being able to host an effective Olympics in 2080.  However, the view that Salt Lake City is one of the better sites to stage an Olympics giving a warming climate is accurate.  Note that this does not mean that the Olympic weather would necessarily be ideal or that we wouldn't be attending events in shorts and t-shirts.

But let's think about the more immediate future, 2030.  What happens in 2030 should Salt Lake City host the Olympics will be strongly dependent on the whims of the jet stream.  Global warming is loading the dice for warmer winters and perhaps less abundant low-elevation snowfall and snowpack, but February 2030 could still be cold or cold and snowy.  On the other hand, what if it were warm and dry?  Well, the odds of not having enough snow at the venues is nearly zero due to the capacity to make snow during colder periods leading up to the games.  This season we're skiing despite an exceptionally dry and warm winter so far.

The one concern might be Soldier Hollow.  It is a relatively low elevation venue in the Heber Valley with courses spanning 5,500 to 5,900 feet.  This low elevation reflects current requirements of the International Ski Federation and makes Soldier Hollow, which already receives scant natural snowfall, somewhat more vulnerable to global warming than higher altitude venues.

However, Soldier Hollow does have a few things going for it.  It is on the north side of a ridge, providing shade when the sun-angle is low, and it tends to see strong cold pools develop at night and, during winter, persist at lower elevations.  This creates good snowmaking potential for its elevation.

Currently, however, Soldier Hollow only has 1-km of trails open.  It is my understanding that they have had some problems with their snowmaking system, which would presumably remedied with no expense spared in an Olympic year.  The other concern might be the Paralympic Games, which are typically held in March. The photo at the top of this post was taken on March 13th, 2016, providing some perspective.  However, I suspect Soldier Hollow will be able to stage the Paralympic competitions, although they need a functional snowmaking system and won't want to skimp on stockpiling snow for insurance.


  1. Regarding conditions at SoHo this winter: they already had to cancel the Utah Invitational XC races that were to be held this week (relocated to West Yellowstone). The Junior Super Qualifier XC races scheduled at SoHo for Jan. 26/27 are in danger of being cancelled and sent to Jackson Hole. Although the crippled snowmaking system has had an impact on their ability to make snow, I've been told by SoHo coaches that the warm weather has been a bigger factor in limiting snow production. Cheers! kp

  2. You can get an info brochure on the 1960 Squaw Valley games if you go to Squaw. On the first page it says: "After a virtually snowless early season, a heavy Sierra storm descended upon Squaw Valley and saved the Olympic Games." Only man-made snow is currently on large portions of the ski courses used during those games. After seeing pictures of this time last year, the seasonal difference is amazing.

  3. We might be in luck, their is a forecasted decrease in solar output. Would love to get your thoughts on this article when you get a chance. https://principia-scientific.org/study-solar-cycle-to-cause-a-mini-ice-age-as-early-as-2020

    1. It's not my area. My impression is that the media has exaggerated the findings of the science article (see e.g., http://www.iflscience.com/environment/mini-ice-age-not-reason-ignore-global-warming/) and that solar scientists don't think such a reduction to dramatically cool the earth is going to happen. The reality is that any solar reduction would likely be small compared to the anthropogeneic warming effects, which over time are going to dominate. My comments in this post were along the lines of how we might get a temporary plateau in warming between now and 2030. It's possible, but in the end, the future is going to be warmer.