Pull out the Team USA T-shirt, throw another log on the fire and turn on the TV: The Winter Olympics are about to begin, and it’s going to be a very cold couple of weeks for the athletes. The Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang, South Korea, are Friday, rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Eastern for those of us in the United States.
South Korea — really, you ask? Yes, the 2018 Winter Games are taking place in a region not necessarily known for winter sports. The location is plenty cold; there’s just not much snow.
PyeongChang is located in the Taebaek Mountains, a small chain that runs along the eastern shore of the Korean Peninsula. Although this is close to the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, prevailing winds prevent the relatively warm water from having much of an effect on weather in PyeongChang.
It’s so cold in this region, in fact, some are saying it could be the coldest Olympics on record, USA Today reports:
At a rehearsal Saturday for the opening ceremony, for example, the temperature was 6 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of 7 below zero — so severely cold that audiences walked out in the middle of the rehearsal, according to local reports.
USA TODAY sports columnist Christine Brennan said that “everyone is bundled up nearly beyond recognition to guard against the frostbite that descended on some poor souls who attended recent outdoor events in the region.”
The Taebaek Mountains are oriented roughly north-south, paralleling the coast, starting in the south near the bustling port town of Busan and extending into North Korea. They are notorious for a cold, harsh wind that blows hard off the dry Asian continent.
The range consists primarily of granite and is not very tall — the average altitude is about 3,000 feet, roughly one-third the height of the Squaw Valley peaks in California near Lake Tahoe, where the 1960 Winter Olympics were held. Mount Seoraksan, topping out at more than 5,600 feet, looms over all other summits in the range. At that relatively low elevation and a latitude of 38 degrees north, the upper reaches of the mountain remain below the tree line, and most of the hillsides are covered in thick forests.
Four hundred miles to the east, the Japanese Alps get more snow than anywhere else on Earth.
In 2013, almost 17 feet of snow was measured at Sukayu Onsen in Aomori on Honshu island, the most snow ever measured at an official Japanese weather site. But on the other side of the East Sea the Taebaek Mountains average 100 to 150 inches a year. For comparison, that would be like hosting the Winter Olympics in Snowshoe, W.Va. (though, to be fair, Snowshoe averages 180 inches a year).
At the Jeongseon Alpine Center, where the men’s and women’s downhill ski events are to take place, a 33.7 million-gallon lake that has a water-cooling capacity of 2,250 gallons a minute was built. TechnoAlpin, a snowmaking company, helped PyeongChang modernize its equipment to include 250 snow guns and three pumping stations. And although “fake” snow is not ideal for the recreational skier because it can pack into a hard sheet of ice, this is preferred in competitive ski racing.
Still, PyeongChang’s climate is better than that of Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Winter Games were held. There it was too warm, so they used snow that fell the previous season and was stockpiled for emergency purposes under tarps and sawdust. Competitors did not like the stale powder. We imagine the reviews will be more favorable in PyeongChang.
Most of the winter, South Korea is under the influence of the Siberian High, a giant pressure ridge that funnels in frigid air from interior Asia. But it’s not just cold; it’s also dry. South Korea gets only 10 percent of its annual precipitation (rain or snow) during the winter.
The host city, PyeongChang, is a mountain town 2,300 feet up on the Taebaek Plateau. PyeongChang’s average high temperature in February is 31 degrees, and its average low is 13 degrees. That’s warmer than what some of the event locations will experience higher on the mountains. At the Alpine Center, the starting line is 2,200 feet higher up, so you can knock another 10 to 15 degrees off the average temperature.
The cold air and low humidity helps preserve the little bit of natural snow that does fall, but it’s also ideal for making snow. What Mother Nature fails to provide will be made up for with some of the most sophisticated snowmaking systems in the world.