Temperature Rising: Winter Olympians Feel Threat From Climate Change

Climate change is affecting sports around the world, including many of the favorite events at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Team USA athletes Brock Crouch, Jessie Diggins and David Wise are making a stand for sustainability. 

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For Olympic athletes, they have their eyes on one prize when they are competing -- an Olympic gold medal. 

But for some, like U.S. cross-country skier Jessie Diggins, their focus shifts to more important matters when they are off the course. 

“You can replace a medal, you can make a new one. You always have that memory,” Diggins said. 

“But we have one planet. We have one shot. We can't screw this up.”

The issue of climate change is here and it’s real. No one knows better than athletes that compete in Winter Olympic events. 

They are seeing that it’s not just the planet and the environment that is affected by climate change, but their respective sports. 

“If the snow goes away, then my job goes away and all the things that I love to do in the wintertime go away,” U.S. snowboarder Brock Crouch said. “The reality is there's things that were a significant part of my lifetime and a significant part of my career as a skier that are not going to be available to my kids by the time they're by the time they're my age.”

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How have these athletes seen the effects of climate change?

What is one of the biggest effects of climate change? An increase in avalanches. 

Climate change causes an inconsistency in weather patterns. With that, it means the snowpack structure on mountains can differ. If a lower layer of snow is less compact on a mountain, when more compacted snow falls on top of it, it isn;t strong enough to hold the top layer, causing an avalanche, which can be deadly to anyone on the mountain at the time. 

Crouch knows all too well just how dangerous an avalanche is. The 22-year-old was involved in a near-deadly crash with an avalanche in April of 2018 when he was filming a snowboarding video in British Columbia. 

“I grew up surfing in Southern California, and I kind of tell everybody that it felt like I was just in a huge ball of whitewash forever,” Crouch said of what it was like to be trapped in the avalanche. “And I couldn't really -- I just kept seeing like blue and snow and blue and snowball and snow.”

The snowboarder from Southern California was hospitalized with a broken back, ruptured pancreas and no front teeth. There was a chance that he would never walk again, meaning his days as a snowboarder would be over. 

But Crouch recovered from the accident, and now has his eyes set on Olympic gold in Beijing. But he goes through life now with a new understanding of the dangers of climate change. 

“It sucks when people don't believe in it or don't see it changing because a lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to travel the world and get to go and experience all these cool places,” Crouch said. “So when you're seeing it in front of your eye, it's something that's pretty scary for sure.”

It doesn’t take a near-death experience to see the effects of climate change.

U.S. freestyle skier David Wise has been able to physically see what climate change does to the environment. The Reno, Nev. native trains in Saas-Fee, Switzerland and he sees the kind of transformation the glaciers there are undergoing. 

“Ironically, I mean, I'm talking about this from one of the first places that I really got to experience climate change firsthand,” Wise said. “I think the first time I came over here was 15 years ago and the glacier was almost down, like down to the town. And so I've been able to watch the glacier just recede.”

Wise understands that as a winter athlete, he has the unique opportunities to experience these glaciers firsthand while he trains for his sport. But it’s now opened his eyes to truly see how the environment is trending in a negative direction. 

“I think scientifically, we all can read a million things and you can know that it's a problem and you can understand scientifically why it's a problem,” Wise said. “But when you see it actually happening and you're like, ‘Wow, that glacier is literally a thousand feet above where it was when I first came here or 1500 feet above,’ it kind of puts things in perspective for you.”

Can events use man-made snow instead of real snow?

One of the solutions to the lack of snow is to create snow from hand. 

Artificial snow has become increasingly more popular, especially with climate change beginning to truly take its toll on the mountains. 

It may look the same to the normal viewer, but man-made snow has a much bigger impact on those that rely on the snow to compete. 

“Real snow is so much softer, right? So one, if you fall, you have snow banks on the side of the course, you're not sliding off into rocks and trees and mud where you could actually get very hurt,” Diggins said. “Now that we're moving to much more man-made snow, the course is getting faster and icier and is actually a little bit dangerous for us because if you start sliding, you're going to keep sliding on ice. And so we have seen, I think, more injuries because of this.”

With climate change impacting the glaciers, man-made snow may be the only solution in the future -- which doesn’t bode well for the health of these athletes.

How will climate change affect future Winter Olympic events?

In order to hold an Olympic Games, you need a site to host all of the events. 

Well, given the rate that climate change is impacting the environment, the options of available host cities to hold the Winter Olympics are going to decrease in the future. 

“What we really see is the geography of where you can have the Winter Olympics really starts to change both in our lifetime, but certainly for the next generation of athletes,” Daniel Scott said, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. 

Scott has spent more than 20 years studying climate change, sports and tourism. The professor led a research group that followed emission trends that projected what temperatures would look like in certain prospective host cities for Winter Olympics in the future. 

What they found was that out of the 21 previous host cities for the Winter Games, nine would be too hot for the Olympics to be held at those locations in the future. Two of those cities -- Sochi and Vancouver -- just recently held the Winter Olympics. 

And it’s not just the winter events. The temperatures are going to rise as well in the summer months, making conditions even worse for those that compete outdoors. 

“When we look at what climate change means for golf, what does it mean for your ability to practice football in the southern states and play games in the extreme heat?” Scott said. “There's implications throughout the sporting world.”

Scott said that the only way to slow down climate change is to act now. 

“If you're an outdoor or winter sports fan, there’s self-interest,” Sott said. “If you want to preserve this for future generations or your kids are involved in these types of sports, if skiing is part of your lifestyle, there's a real difference between a low and a high emission future. So that's one of the key takeaways that we can. We can't stop all of the impacts, but we can stop the worst of them.” 

How have winter athletes come together to combat climate change?

In order to make change happen -- real change -- you need to go to the big leagues in D.C. And that’s exactly what these winter athletes are doing. 

Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski, a climate scientist and assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire, is a member of the Science Alliance for Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit organization with a mission of protecting the outdoors by advocating for climate change legislation. 

The organization brings winter athletes to Washington to talk to Congress about climate change and what needs to be done to combat it. 

“They are getting political,” Burakowski said. “They're talking about climate change. And we're getting to a point where I feel like the conversations are loud enough that folks in Congress are listening.”

One of the big positives about having these athletes speak on behalf of an organization like Protect Our Winters is that not only do they have first-hand experiences with climate change, but also aren’t seen as political figures in the public’s eye. 

“They’re such credible voices in this debate because people don't view them as political,” Michael Bennet said, a U.S. Senator from Colorado. “People view them as people who are representing the United States of America and speaking out from a conviction that's based on their experience on the ground or, in our case, in the mountains.”

Diggins was one of those athletes who made a visit to Capitol Hill in 2018. She wants to ensure that future winter athletes have the same opportunities to play and compete in these events that she had. 

“I'm worried about the future of our sport,” Diggins said. “And I really want, you know, my kids and grandkids to be able to ski someday and experience the sport that I love so much. I don't want to be the generation that ruins it for everybody else.”

What can people do about climate change?

There’s a number of different ways everyday citizens can help counter the effects of climate change, both big and small. 

You could take the same route Wise did and completely reshape your way of living.

Wise and his family have a place out in Nevada where they grow and hunt their own food rather than buying packaged goods at the grocery store. Their goal is that in 10 years or so, they will be completely off the grid. 

It’s not an easy lifestyle, but one that the freestyle skier wants to continue in order to reduce their carbon footprint. 

“We're actually just struggling through it one step at a time,” Wise said. “So I mean, my garden has just been a complete fail for the last two seasons, but we're looking up. Next year is going to be a little bit better in the year after that, to me, a little bit better.” 

If hitting the reset button on your lifestyle isn’t a fit for you, you can start by changing simple things like using reusable water bottles or cleaning up trash in the environment, like Crouch has done. 

If you want to take it a step further, take the advice of Diggins and reach out to your local representatives in Congress on the matter. 

“If every single person wrote to their senator and said, ‘I care about this, I'd love to see you push this agenda forward in the budget reconciliation package,’ for example, maybe it would change things,” Diggins said. 

“This doesn't have to be a political issue. It doesn't have to be a split among party lines … We're all on the same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all have to get through this together. Maybe this is something that needs to be bipartisan and maybe we can take the politics out of it to the extent where we all need to care about this.”

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