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Why Beijing lacks snow, and how climate change has the Winter Olympics on a slippery slope

There’s no lack of cold for this year’s Olympics, but limited natural snow is an enduring challenge for the games

A worker monitors a snow-making machine on a hill overlooking cross-country skiing practice on Feb. 2 in Zhangjiakou, China. (Aaron Favila/AP)

Even cold-hardy competitors have been shivering this month as they dart down the slopes of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, the mountainous sites just west of Beijing that are serving as outdoor venues for the Winter Olympics.

While there has been plenty of cold air, snowfall has been hard to come by.

“Where can you go to get minus 15 [Celsius, or 5°F] and sun and no snow coming for a week?” Norwegian Alpine skier Kjetil Jansrud told NPR, referring to the Yanqing course.

You know it’s cold when Winter Olympians are freezing

The juxtaposition has left some observers puzzled. How could such a frigid venue be forced to rely almost completely on artificial snow?

Snow-making has become routine for the Winter Olympics, as the demand for a reliable snow scape at an ever-more-lucrative global event has increased side by side with the uncertainties of human-caused global warming.

At this year’s winter games, however, the lack of natural snow is not a shocker or even necessarily a byproduct of climate change.

“I’m not the least bit surprised at the weather they’re having in Beijing. It’s pretty much par for the course in that part of the world,” said Jim Steenburgh, a snow expert and professor of meteorology at the University of Utah.

Steenburgh, a consultant on Winter Olympics weather for more than 20 years, visited the Beijing area venues in 2018, where he assisted with planning and giving lectures on snow forecasting.

“They told us that it barely snows there,” Steenburgh said.

Blame it on the monsoon

What limits snowfall in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou is the same mammoth atmospheric cycle that affects more than 2 billion people each year: the East Asian Monsoon.

At its heart, the monsoon is an annual seesaw — one that for millions of years has pushed cold, dry air southward across eastern Asia each winter and funneled warm, moist air northward each summer.

The monsoon-related flow contributes to the largest and most intense zones of high pressure on the planet, sourced from Siberia. These domes of frigid, sinking air typically block Pacific moisture from reaching northeast China during the winter. As a result, 2 percent of Beijing’s annual average precipitation — a mere 0.40 inches — falls between December and February. Nearly all of that is in the form of snow.

Compare that with Washington, D.C., where winter brings 22 percent of the city’s annual average precipitation — or about 8.89 inches. Most of that comes in the form of rain, but a single top-end D.C. snowstorm can produce more snow than Beijing typically gets in an entire winter.

Although the mountains near Beijing are not an obvious choice for the Winter Olympics in terms of snowfall, they are among the most reliable of recent venues when it comes to cold weather. Even in the second week of February, as Beijing rose well above 40 degrees, temperatures at the higher elevations of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou stayed lower.

Another blast of Siberian cold is expected to sweep across northeast China during the final week of competition. The cold surge may push temperatures 10 to 15 degrees below average, and light snow is possible this weekend.

The jet stream is ushering weather systems through northeast China quickly, helping to keep the air well-mixed. Together with strong emission control measures, the weather pattern has cut back on the risk of severe air pollution during the winter games.

Adapting to less-than-ideal winter weather

A lack of natural snow has become a common theme in recent Winter Olympics.

The 2018 winter games were held in and around PyeongChang, in the northeast part of South Korea. Located well east of China, on a peninsula between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, the PyeongChang area would seem to be a more natural spot for reliable infusions of Siberian cold paired with access to enough Pacific moisture for ample snowfall.

The icy truth about Olympic snowmaking

Even so, the PyeongChang venues made extensive use of artificial snow.

Other recent Winter Olympics have flirted more dangerously with the constraints of a warming world. Record-warm weather swaddled the Vancouver, British Columbia, area for the 2010 games; some spectators were drenched by heavy rain.

Conditions in and near Sochi, Russia, were similarly unwintry during the 2014 winter games, when for the first time a host city failed to dip below freezing during the entire period of competition.

Both these venues can get their share of bountiful snow. However, they are also both naturally prone to warm intrusions, even before taking the effects of climate change into account.

Knowing the weather and climate risks around them, organizers have been pushing beyond mere snow-making into other backstop measures. Truckloads of snow were brought into the Vancouver venues, and snow from the prior winter was stored under tarps in the Sochi area.

Snow-making was a novelty during its first major Winter Olympics use, at the 1980 games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Now, with far higher expectations for workable courses, artificial snow is a de facto requirement, Steenburgh said: “They’re not going to give an Olympic bid to [a venue] that doesn’t have snow-making along every course that needs it.”

Although the process of snow-making is replete with multiple, well-catalogued environmental hazards — including noise, pollution and the depleting of local water supplies — the end product can be surprisingly workable for Alpine racing, where a smooth, manufactured surface from water-injected artificial snow can enhance performance.

“Most of the time, racers want to be on a firm, hard, consistent surface that doesn’t break down when they’re going down a hill,” Steenburgh noted. Referring to World Cup Alpine skiers, he tweeted: “Your worst nightmare is their dream ski surface.”

Snow-making at ski areas is critical, and here’s why

Cross-country skiers, on the other hand, have voiced concerns about artificial snow on Nordic courses better suited for a natural base.

“I’ve noticed at the World Cup when it is man-made snow, it is scary because instead of sliding on snow you’re sliding on ice,” 2020-21 World Cup winner and Beijing bronze medalist Jessie Diggins told the Associated Press. “I think we’re seeing a higher percentage of falls. I feel it is a little more dangerous now.”

A study published in January, led by Daniel Scott of the University of Waterloo, includes a survey of more than 300 Olympic athletes and coaches from 20 countries on their views of weather-climate conditions, performance and safety. “The athletes and coaches … were almost unanimous (94%) in their fear that climate change will adversely impact the future development of their sport,” the study found.

One slalom athlete cited the risks of too-warm weather: “body is too hot - difficult to build tension, tiredness - higher risk of injury … equipment (impacted) in general, but mainly boots get too soft - no proper control over the skis - dangerous!”

The Winter Olympics could highlight China’s innovative — and troubling — efforts to control the weather

Warning: A slippery climate ahead

Venue selection will become an increasing challenge for Winter Olympics planners, according to “Slippery Slopes: How Climate Change is threatening the Winter Olympics.” The report, issued in January, was produced by the Sport Ecology Group at Loughborough University and the advocacy group Protect Our Winters.

The report cites a 2014 study led by Scott that found that under a high-end emissions scenario (RCP 8.5), six of the 19 venues that have hosted Winter Olympics since 1921 would be cold enough to provide reliable course conditions when paired with advanced snow-making. Even in a low-emissions scenario (RCP 2.6), 13 of the 19 venues would prove reliable.

All of these sites were judged as reliable for the period 1981-2010.

We may avoid the very worst climate scenario. But the next-worst is still pretty awful.

Apart from the Games themselves, a broader threat is facing Olympic competitors as well as everyday winter-sport lovers: a narrower window, both in time and space, for naturally optimal conditions. A warming climate is liable to cut into the places and times where Olympians can put in the practice they need.

“Slippery Slopes” also points out that even the hyper-sculpted racing surface made possible by artificial snow-making has its down side: “Artificial snow fashions a harder surface, creating a risk of more severe injuries when falls do occur.”