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Climate Change Could Limit the Winter Olympics In the Future

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There are many, many ways climate change may eventually affect our everyday lives. Aside from the obvious environmental implications (like, um, cities disappearing under water), we can also expect an increase in everything from flight turbulence to mental health issues.

One potential effect that hits home, especially right now? The Winter Olympics as we know them may see some major changes in the decades ahead. According to Issues in Tourism, the number of viable locations for the Winter Olympics is going to decline steeply if climate change continues on its current course. Researchers found that if global emissions of greenhouse gases aren't curbed, only eight of the 21 cities that have held the Winter Games in the past will be viable future locations, due to their changing weather conditions. On the list of places that will potentially be no-gos by 2050? Sochi, Chamonix, and Grenoble.

What's more, because of a shorter winter season, the researchers indicated that it's possible that the Olympics and Paralympics, which since 1992 have been held in the same city within the span of just a couple of months (but sometimes three months), will likely need to be split between two different cities. That's because the number of destinations that will remain cold enough from February through March (or potentially April) by the 2050s is even shorter than the list of places that could reliably hold the Olympics. Pyeongchang, for example, will be considered "climatically risky" for holding the Winter Paralympics by 2050.

"Climate change has already taken a toll on the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and this problem will only worsen the longer we delay fighting climate change," says Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "At the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, slushy snow conditions led to dangerous and unfair conditions for athletes. Injury rates for athletes were substantially higher in many ski and snowboard events."

Plus, "shrinking snowpack is not only a problem for Olympic athletes, but for all of us who enjoy the snow and depend on it for fundamental needs like drinking water supplies," Wolf says. "Across the globe, snowpack is decreasing and the length of the winter snow season is on the decline."

There's one obvious cause: "We know that the primary cause of recent global warming is the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," explains Jeffrey Bennett, Ph.D., an astrophysicist, educator, and author of A Global Warming Primer. Fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gases, which is why Bennett says alternative energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear, and others) are crucial. And while sticking to the Paris Climate Accord would help, it wouldn't be enough. "Even if greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges to the Paris Climate Agreement are fulfilled, many cities will still fall off the map in terms of viability."

Yikes. So you may be wondering about the takeaway here. "The harm to the Winter Olympics is another reminder that climate change is taking away the things we enjoy," Wolf says. "Playing outdoors in the snow—throwing a snowball, jumping on a sled, racing downhill on skis—nourishes our spirit and well-being." Unfortunately, our right to winters as we know them is something we are going to have to fight for by addressing climate change.

"The Olympics are a symbol of nations coming together to rise to incredible challenges," Wolf says. "Climate change is a high-stakes problem in need of urgent action, and there couldn't be a more important time for people to raise their voices to demand strong climate policies to meet that challenge."

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