The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could global warming spell the demise of winter sports? These athletes told Congress that’s their fear.

Christian Fay, 21, of Laytonsville, Md., gets in some stick time on a frozen pond in Montgomery County in January. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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When Mike Richter, a retired NHL goaltender, was growing up, the duck ponds around Philadelphia would freeze each winter, neighborhood kids would lace up their skates, and “I’d be out there all day,” he recalled Wednesday. “My world just stopped.”

With temperatures warming, he fears children today won’t discover and fall in love with ice hockey the way he once did, that outdoor pastime propelling Richter to a career that included a Stanley Cup title and an Olympic silver medal.

“When I see a pond melt, I know the lost opportunity for this generation to experience this wonderful game that I was able to grow up with,” the 52-year-old told a Senate special committee. “What we need to understand is that this represents something far more ominous.”

Richter was among the athletes who visited Capitol Hill this week and spoke at a hearing before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chair of the panel, convened the group to explore climate change through the lens of sports, calling the hearing: “The Fight to Save Winter: Pro Athletes for Climate Action.”

Skating is a way of life in the Netherlands, but warming temperatures are changing that

While the assembled Democrats and athletes discussed climate change as a critical economic, health and science matter, Schatz said he wanted to highlight that it’s also a pressing lifestyle issue that affects millions of Americans.

“All of your assumptions about how you spend your time in the winter and summers, what you’re able to do with your family when you have free time and a little bit of money are going to change if we don’t take action,” he said. “They were powerful advocates for doing something about climate, especially because they don’t have a political agenda. They’re just on the front lines, seeing what’s happening in the real world.”

The athletes told the senators about the changing conditions they see on the mountains, the shrinking winters and warming temperatures that threaten the sports and activities that rely on snow, ice and cold weather.

Jeremy Jones, a veteran snowboarder and founder of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters, pointed to a 2017 study by University of Colorado researchers that suggested the length of winter recreation seasons will shrink in some areas by 50 percent by 2050 and 80 percent by 2090.

“Which means winter as we know it would be three weeks long,” Jones told the lawmakers. “That is heartbreaking. I’m also a father, [and] to think my kids’ kids could be the last generation of skiers is a big deal.”

Extreme heat is changing sports

Climber Tommy Caldwell and ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich also told the senators they regularly see signs that warming temperatures are eroding conditions and will have a devastating effect on sports Americans love to play and watch.

“There is no doubt increased temperatures are melting away both my sport and my livelihood,” Gleich said.

The athletes stressed that while climate change impacts competition and recreation, it’s also a major economic concern for businesses, resorts and towns that rely on cold weather to keep ski lifts open, equipment sales up and visitors filling restaurants and hotel rooms. Jones pointed to a 2017 report from the Outdoor Industry Association that found snow sports generate $72 billion annually and support 695,000 jobs.

The invited athletes are part of a larger group of winter sports competitors who have been outspoken about environmental issues in recent years. Others were in the gallery in the hearing room Wednesday and met privately with senators earlier in the week.

Wednesday’s hearing marked the third time the special committee had convened and the first time it specifically addressed the impact climate change could have on the sports world. Schatz said after the hearing that given their platform, athletes could play an important role in helping people better understand the issue and the sweeping impact.

“People personally feel passionately about sports. In order to mobilize the movement necessary to take action, we’re going to have to generate passion,” Schatz said. “People feel very passionately about their weekends with the families and the uninterrupted time they get to spend in nature. All of that is changing.”

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