Winter Olympics in a Warming World
Air Date: Week of February 4, 2022
The Beijing Winter Olympics is making artificial snow to create the conditions necessary for alpine sports events. (Photo: Max Mayorov, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
China and the International Olympic Committee say the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing have many elements of sustainability. But critics point to the environmental impacts of creating an alpine ski resort in an arid region, on the site of a nature reserve. And as Earth warms due to climate change, suitable places to host winter sports are disappearing around the globe. Carmen de Jong, a Hydrology Professor at the University of Strasbourg, discusses the past and future sustainability of the Winter Olympics with Bobby Bascomb.
BASCOMB: Skiing is a big part of the winter Olympics, but as the climate warms and droughts deepen people like Carmen de Jong are concerned about the sustainability of snow-dependent sporting events at the Olympics in general and in China in particular this year. Carmen de Jong is a hydrology professor at the University of Strasbourg in France and she is especially concerned about the environmental impacts of hosting such events in an arid region that gets very little natural snow. Carmen, please tell me about the climate and geography of the area where the skiing events are being held.
JONG: Yeah, so there are two venues, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou. Both of them are in a very dry climate with less than 400 millimeters of rainfall per year, and very, very little snow. So it's like less than an inch of snow per month. And the whole region has a lot of water scarcity problems. There are also lots of droughts, and the droughts have been becoming more severe over the last years. So it's really quite a harsh climate.
BASCOMB: And so if there's so very little natural snowfall there, that must mean that they will rely heavily on making snow. What are the environmental concerns associated with making snow, especially in this very dry region?
JONG: Yeah, so there's virtually no natural snow, so everything has to be produced. And that requires large amounts of water not only because of the 100%, artificial snow, but also because all the access roads have to be covered by snow in order for the vehicles to move. And because it's such a water scarce area, the water has to be pumped and piped uphill from very far away. So that's bound to have some effect on the local water needs for irrigation or maybe even drinking water. And actually the climate is not at all appropriate for snowmaking. Firstly, it's very windy. So there are high losses. So you have to produce a lot more snow to reach the same end product. Then, it's very dry, so there's lot of evaporation during snow making. And then there's another problem that the soil is so dry that the artificial snow doesn't stick to it. And the soil can't freeze; it lacks water. So the snow makers first have to inject water into the soil, make it freeze and then you can start producing artificial snow and putting it on top. So all in all, you require about three to four times the amount of water for snowmaking in the Peking venues compared to the Alps or the Rockies.
BASCOMB: Sure and that makes sense. And from what I understand, part of the Alpine course was built through a nature reserve. Can you tell us a bit about that, please?
JONG: Yes, that's a very complicated story. Because in 2015, there were Chinese biologists that were alerting to the fact that the plans were to construct alpine ski runs in the core area of a nature reserve. And they protested against it. And then not much was being said about what happened from then onwards. And the whole issue was kind of silenced. But last year, I started comparing maps and Google Images of the sites and I realized that they had stayed at the exactly the same venues. They moved the boundaries. So they've relocated parts of the nature reserve. It's 25% of the nature reserve that has been declassified and moved. And unfortunately, the core area has been totally destroyed. So this is really very sad because they created the nature reserve to protect the golden lair part, the golden eagle, the also protected orchids, and so on. And also very special kinds of trees like the Mongolian oak. And the meltwater coming from artificial snow contains more minerals, more salts, more bacteria, remnants of diesel, wax from the skiers, and so on. So this mix will surely impact native vegetation. There are a lot of things being undertaken by the Olympic Committee. They are saying that they replanted the trees lower down. But it's very difficult to believe how trees that require a certain soil type, soil texture, moisture and climate can survive 1000 or 1500 meters further down below, and whether they can really survive from a year to year basis. But anyway, the natural habitat has been destroyed in that region. I think that's the main issue.
BASCOMB: Well, how would you say the games as they're shaping up in China compare to previous winter games in other countries? I mean, is China really that much worse? Or is this just sort of the price we pay every four years to host this sort of international event?
JONG: Well, none of the past games have been sustainable. And they've all been using artificial snow to a very large extent, like Sochi used 80% artificial snow, Pyeongchang more than 90%. The difference is that these venues did have natural snow. Nonetheless, the other games have also caused a lot of environmental destruction like Sochi in 2014, they had to import 14 tons of coarse grain salt from Switzerland to make the ski runs last another few days. If you look back at Vancouver 2010 all the artificial snow they prepared beforehand melted away. And they had to bring in bales of straw by helicopter and snow by helicopter to create artificial ski runs.
BASCOMB: You know, creating a new venue from scratch every four years seems inherently unsustainable, you know, there is this idea to create a couple of permanent locations to hold the Olympics. But with the changing climate, to what degree can we expect any city or region to be, you know, consistently suitable to host these games long-term going in the future?
JONG: Yeah, it would be a nice idea. But that's not going to happen, because the Olympic Games are all about prestige and proximity to large cities or capital cities. And it's going to be very difficult to find a site or some sites to permanently host the games because of climate change. So climate change is striking hard, in the US, as in the Alps and in Scandinavia. And most of the Alpine and Scandinavian venues are no longer candidates, because there's a lot of resistance from the local population, because of financial issues, because of environmental issues, because of traffic issues, and so on. But it would never happen to select some remote site in Greenland or in the Arctic, because it's just not feasible from an infrastructural point of view. And then the prestige factor is also missing.
BASCOMB: Well, moving forward and looking into the future of the Olympics, what kind of steps do you think Olympic officials should be taking to make the games more sustainable?
JONG: So a step forward, would be just maybe to share venues and to have less disciplines, and to tune down the games and maybe develop the Summer Games instead of developing the Winter Games.
BASCOMB: Well, scaling back the Olympics, I don't think that's going to go over too well, for you know, the athletes who look forward to this and you know, have staked their careers on these games and the Olympic Committee, you know, the host countries, the people that look forward to these games every four years.
JONG: Yes, for the athletes it's a big dilemma because it's their job, and they don't have a choice where they're going to but I think we're hearing a lot of voices from athletes as well that are a bit horrified by these white tongues and the brown landscape as they are landing in Beijing. I think they also would have the choice to maybe boycott the games if they seemed so unsustainable to them.
BASCOMB: Carmen de Jong is a professor of Hydrology at the University of Strasbourg. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.
JONG: Thank you.
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