Monday, February 12, 2018

PyeongChang 2018: Cold, Wind, and Lessons for Salt Lake 2026/2030

You can always count on the Winter Olympics to serve up some good weather stories.  So far in PyeongChang, it's cold and wind.

Let's talk about the cold first.  The average temperature in PyeongChang during the Olympic Period is 22.1ºF, making its climate easily the coldest to host the Winter Olympics since Lilliehammer in 1994.  Note that the numbers below for sites other than PyeongChang are from Wikipedia and for the entire month of February.

PyeongChang 2018: -5.5ºC (22.1ºF)
Sochi 2014: 6.0ºC (42.8ºF)
Vancouver 2010: 5.5ºC (41.9ºF)
Turin 2006: 6.4ºC (43.5ºF)
Salt Lake City 2002: 3.6ºC (38.5ºF)
Nagano 1998: 0.0ºC (32.0ºF)
Lilliehammer 1994: -5.3ºC (22.5ºF)

Some of these sites have outdoor venues that are higher (and colder).  However, if you are a reporter returning to the host city each night, you are frequently experiencing a warmer climate.  There's no escape from the cold in PyeongChang.  Even in the Gangneung Coastal Cluster, near sea level, the average temperature is -0.5ºC, colder than all but Lilliehammer.

Thus, for people covering the games, even average temperatures are a big adjustment.  In addition, over the past two weeks, mean temperatures inferred from the maximum and minimum temperatures reported at Daegwallyeong in the Mountain cluster (the site used for the climatological PyeongChang discussed above temperature above) were below average except on Feb 9 and 10.
In addition, it has also been windy, resulting in low wind chills and affecting many of the outdoor competitions.  The Men's Downhill and Ladies Giant Slalom were postponed (I learned during my Olympic service that the word cancelled shall not be used under any circumstances) and watching events the past few days it was clear that wind was playing a role.

None of this is unexpected from a meteorological perspective.  The Korean Peninsula lies along the east coast of Asia, the largest continent.  During winter, dominant high pressure frequently drives cold, flow over the region.  The pre-Olympic Weather Report summarizing the climate of the region, issued in April 2017 by the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee, provides a summary of the main weather patterns that may affect the Games schedule, and explicitly states that:
Cold and dry air flow from the the most dominant weather pattern during the Olympic and Paralympic Periods. The Siberian High brings cold and dry weather to the Korean Peninsula. When the air mass games strength, high winds and low windchill temperatures are the most influential factors in particular during the Olympic Period.
Thus, nobody should be surprised by this weather.  Climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get.

Which brings us to Salt Lake City's likely bid for the 2026 or 2030 games.  Should those games be awarded, it would be a mistake to assume either that: (1) the weather in 2026 or 2030 will be similar to that in 2002, or (2) we will have above average temperatures because of global warming.

If you remember back to the 2002 Games, Mother Nature blew out the air pollution just prior to the start of the Olympics and for the most part during the Games, the weather was great.  In fact, Pat Bagley featured it in one of his cartoons.

However, what happens in 2026 or 2030 is going to be very dependent on the whims of the Mother Nature.  February in Salt Lake is a fickle month and a lot can happen that can affect transportation, athlete and spectator safety, logistics, and competitions.  Persistent inversions with fog and air pollution.  Downslope windstorms.  Arctic intrusions with extreme cold.  Heavy snowfall in valleys or mountains.  Strong winds in the valleys or mountains.  Lightning.

Climatologically, Salt Lake has a great climate for the Olympics, but that doesn't mean the weather will necessarily be easy on us if we host the Olympics again.

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