global warming eliminates Tahoe as an Olympic site; boosters remain optimistic about winter sports • Sacramento News & Review

Unless mitigation measures are followed, all but one host city will be too hot for matches

By Frank X. Mullen

A new climate change analysis concludes that the Lake Tahoe region is already too warm to risk hosting the Winter Olympics there again, but those who worked to bring the event back to the Sierra aren’t ringing the bell. death knell of the region’s winter. sports for now.

“A lot of people have done years of work in this area to see if more winter games would be feasible,” said Jon Killoran, CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Coalition. “This study would be another element that would be taken into account. If you look at the big picture, the studies are what they are – a glimpse of a possible future. Then it’s a matter of what people do about those ramifications, to mitigate them or not.

Killoran noted that predictions aren’t set in stone. Even if the Sierra resorts never catch the Olympic rings again, he said, the region remains a training ground and will continue to host world-class winter sports events.

“(The coalition) has hosted and will continue to host events in northern and southern Nevada that bring social, economic and other benefits to the state,” he said. “We are looking for a future independent of an Olympic bid. And we continue to monitor all the things that come up with regards to a future offer.

According to study by an international team of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, the effects of climate change will prevent the resort that hosted the 1960 Winter Games from competing in future Olympics. This station – then called Squaw Valley; renamed Palisades Tahoe – no longer a reliable candidate as a location.

Less storms, less snow

Choosing a site for the Winter Games always comes with a risk factor. AT Squaw Valley in 1960, drought conditions prevailed. Days before the event began, Native Americans held a snow dance and teams seeded the clouds with silver iodide crystals. Just in time, a storm dumped 7 feet of powder on the Sierra and let the games begin. In Lake Placid in 1980, workers frantically shoveled truckloads of snow onto rocky cross-country ski trails before these events could begin. The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, currently underway, are the first Winter Games to use artificial snow almost entirely.

Picking a site and expecting the weather to cooperate has never been a sure thing, but climate change, accelerated by man-made CO2 emissions, has further stacked the deck against potential sites.

At Lake Tahoe, the weather conditions have changed; snowfall in February has decreased. Climate models predict that with CO2 emissions still high, in 30 years Palisades Tahoe will be too hot to host winter sports events. The analysis indicates that by the middle of the century, it is estimated that 50% to 89% of the region’s February days will have insufficient or wet snow and that 25% to 50% of the days will be too rainy or too hot to the competition. By 2080, it will be unreliable as a meeting place nearly 90% of the month, according to the study’s predictions.

“The world of winter sports is changing as climate change accelerates, and the international athletes and coaches we interviewed are witnessing the impacts at competition and training venues, including the Olympics,” said Daniel Scott, professor of geography and environmental management at the University. of Waterloo.

Photograph by Gianna Petteruti.

Historical events; models of the future

The researchers studied historical climate data from the 1920s to the present day and looked at future climate change scenarios for the 2050s and 2080s. They also interviewed international athletes and coaches and found that 89% of them felt that changing weather conditions affected competition conditions, and 94% feared that climate change would impact the future development of their sport.

The research team found that the average daytime temperature of host cities in February has steadily increased by more than 10 degrees over the past century – from 32.7°F in the 1920s through the 1950s, to 43, 3°F in the first half of this century, including in Beijing. Using this data, the team assessed each site’s likelihood of having below-freezing nighttime temperatures and at least a foot of snow, either natural or man-made.

In 80 years, the researchers predict, only one former Winter Olympic site, the Japanese city of Sapporo, will have enough snow to host the Games. But if the emissions targets of the Paris Climate Agreement can be met, the researchers noted, seven other previous host cities could still be considered “reliable” sites: Salt Lake City, Lake Placid, Vancouver, Calgary, Lillehammer, Oslo and Nagano.

But even with mitigation measures in place and snowmaking technology widely available, the researchers concluded that Palisades Tahoe would still be too warm for the Winter Games.

First American site

The 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley/Palisades Tahoe were the first to be held on American soil. Other US venues followed, with Lake Placid, NY, in 1980 and Salt Lake City, UT, in 2002, when Reno-Tahoe interests also offered to host the event. The Local Coalition to Reclaim the Games in the Sierra was revived and gained momentum in the early 2000s.

“(The coalition), starting in the early 2000s, was pursuing the opportunity to bid for 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022,” said Killoran, who explained that the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee chose not to pursue. bids for the Olympic Games for those years. . “…So we were still in a position to be prepared to bid if an auction were to take place. But no offers ever took place until November 2019.”

That year, the Olympic Committee offered Reno-Tahoe, Denver, and Salt Lake City a chance to compete to be the next preferred site for the U.S. Winter Games. Killoran said Reno-Tahoe didn’t participate in that process because there was no specific Olympic year attached to the offer and “we weren’t comfortable with it.”

Salt Lake City has won the opportunity to be the preferred venue the next time the Winter Games are held in the United States

Before the University of Waterloo report, there was a lot of studies predict the disastrous consequences of climate change in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Annual snowfall has decreased over the decades and droughts have become more frequent. The lake now falls below its natural edge – which cuts off the flow that feeds the Truckee River – earlier and more frequently than before.

Infrequent snowstorms

Scott Sady, a photographer from Reno who has skied and raced in Sierra resorts for decades, said anyone who does winter sports around Lake Tahoe knows that the trend for dryness and snow depths shallower continues.

“I don’t need a study to tell me it’s warmer,” Sady said. “We can hardly ski the Davis Creek Park trail anymore, and if we can, it might be for a few weeks every year…I started running because of that seven-year drought where you don’t Could only find patches of artificial snow in January. Before that, I had hardly ever bothered to ski on a groomed slope. Then for about 5 or 6 years of below average record snowfall, that was all you could ski.

Sady said “all of our precipitation (now) seems to come in a few giant storms. Previously, you got 6 inches here, a foot there. Now it’s 10 feet, then nothing. After that huge christmas storm all my friends were talking about what a great snowy year it was going to be and i told them, wait, it probably won’t snow for the next two months. Looks like I might be right given the long-term forecast.

Photograph by Ethan Dow

Drier winters, rocky trails

The snow line is rising over time, he noted.

“It was visible about four years ago when almost every storm came in with snow levels above 8,000 feet,” Sady said. “Mt. Rose had snow and the whole mountain below Squaw and Alpine was dirt, mid-winter…I noticed a ton of regular Squaw skiers all of a sudden had Mount Rose passes the next year because you could see the writing on the wall Even if it snows, it can still rain in Squaw since it starts at around 6,800 feet.

Sady doubts the Palisades Tahoe, Alpine and Northstar resorts can continue to operate with natural snow for more than a decade or two. “Given all the money (the resorts) are investing in their villages and their real estate, this could turn out to be a huge problem,” he said.

A training center

Although the recent study focused on Palisades Tahoe because it was the site of a previous Winter Games, Killoran noted that the events have become so widespread that no one station can be the sole site anymore. “It would take a number of resorts,” he said.

The Sierra resorts have been a prime training area for Winter Games athletes, Killoran said, and will continue to do so no matter where future games take place. More than a dozen athletes currently competing in the Beijing 2022 Winter Games have trained in ski areas around Lake Tahoe and Truckee, California.

And other major winter sports competitions will continue to be scheduled at Lake Tahoe.

“Climate studies come out from time to time and we basically see the same (predictions),” Killoran said. “When it comes to climate change, it’s up to all of us, local, regional, national or global, whether these things will actually happen and whether they can be mitigated.”

Teresa H. Sadler