Attendees of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games may notice some peculiarities in the weather conditions they experience. Unlike much of Russia’s vast subarctic climate, Sochi lies within a humid subtropical region, with relatively balmy mid-winter weather. However, the mountains in the city’s backdrop, about an hour away, are sufficiently cold and snowy for winter games.
Coastal Sochi: a mild winter climate
The Games are being held during a stretch of the coastal city’s coldest winter stretch, with a daily average high of 49 degrees and low of 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Remarkably, Sochi’s daily average temperature values never drop below freezing at any time of the year. According to NASA, it’s the warmest host city for any winter Olympic games.
Sochi shares the same latitude as the Lake Ontario boundary between the U.S. and Canada, but the moderating effects of the Black Sea make for a warmer climate. Sea-breeze effects from the Black Sea to the southwest and mountain effects from the Caucasus range to the northeast interact, but the unique climate of coastal southwest Russia rarely experiences the high winds we face in the United States. Sochi lies on the leeward side of the Caucasus range where flow down the mountain from the northeast along with stable high pressure reduces the likelihood of high impact storms.
West Caucasus Mountains: cold enough for winter games, with abundant snow
Alpine athletes will ski down the slopes of the Rosa Khutor ski resort with altitudes ranging from 575 to over 2300 meters or roughly 2,000 to 8,500 feet. Because air temperatures tend to fall with increasing elevation, these high mountain peaks almost always experience colder temperatures than Sochi.
The rate that air temperature changes with height, known as the lapse rate, depends on moisture content. When the air is moist, the temperature cools about 3 degrees F. every 1,000 feet in altitude. When it’s dry, the cooling rate increases to about 5.5 degrees per 1,000 feet. So mountain temperatures for outdoor games should range from about 6 to more than 30 degrees colder than Sochi proper.
According to the New World Encyclopedia precipitation in the Caucasus region is plentiful ranging from 39 and 157 inches annually, depending on the region. The mountains towering over Sochi are in a prime location for heavy snow as moist air from the Black Sea rises and condenses on top of them. Snow-forecast.com reports the Rosa Khutor resort currently has about two feet of snow at its base and over 100 inches of snow in the higher terrain.
An avalanche risk
LiveScience.com reports the region’s proclivity for heavy snow makes it prone to avalanches. Up to 3.3 feet (1 m) of snow can occur in 24 hours and the mountain slopes are steep, it says, but games’ organizers have developed “an arsenal” of response tactics.
“Russian authorities eventually agreed to let Olympic planners keep explosive charges that could be fired to cause small avalanches to fall before they develop into larger, more dangerous avalanches,” Live Science writes.
A snow drought contingency plan: learning from Vancouver
Insufficient snow is a frequent concern at winter Olympic venues. Vancouver was forced to import snow into the city during the mild winter Olympic games four years ago when temperatures rose into the mid-50s. Russia isn’t taking any chances, and has developed state of the art measures to maintain its snowpack, as The Verge explains:
Though Sochi’s management team refused to disclose the technical details of the program, they did detail an extensive system of safeguards that should mean there’ll be sufficient snow in Sochi for the games. These include the implementation of one of the largest snowmaking systems in Europe, comprising of two huge water reservoirs that feed 400 snow cannons installed along the slopes.
Short-term forecast for the Sochi region
The current forecast is for high temperatures to be in the 50s through early next week with some light rain moving in late Monday into Tuesday. This rain should gradually transition to snow in the higher terrain.
“There is plenty of snow on the slopes now and it is not likely to disappear during the games, despite the upcoming mild weather,” says AccuWeather world weather expert Jason Nicholls.
(Jason Samenow contributed to this post)