Due to the climate crisis, the days of the Winter Olympics as we once knew it could be numbered. Such was the case with Olympic athlete Maddie Phaneuf when she expressed her disappointment at this year’s Winter Olympics using fake snow this year. “It’s upsetting, but I am not surprised”, says Phaneuf. “Snowfall around the world has been harder to predict for obvious reasons. Therefore, it is only natural for this year’s Olympics to not have real snow”.
Phaneuf then discusses her own struggles with searching for snowy climates. Being born in upstate New York, Phaneuf was used to the cooler temperatures and expressed her frustration finding areas to properly present her skiing skills. “I remember traveling to Dolomites, Italy only to find a completely different environment”, says she. “You’re imagining these places to be amazing winter wonderlands that have so much snow, and you get there and there’s just green grass, and there’s just a ribbon of white snow that’s all manmade,” she said. “It’s obviously hard to see that as a professional athlete, where that’s your livelihood to race on that.”
Suffice it to say, climate change has completely changed our experience of winter. Many ski resorts have shut down, snowboarding has become a rare sight, and the Winter Olympics often has to import snow from other countries. It does not help that Beijing, China’s levels of air pollution are practically double from years prior. According to research from the University of Waterloo, only Sapporo in Japan would have the necessary conditions to host them again in a safe and fair way by the end of the 21st century if there is not a drastic reduction in greenhouse gasses.”
“I feel as if we are moving towards more precipitation falling as rain that used to fall as snow”, says Phaneuf. “There’s enormous volatility, and so I think that’s going to make the decision on where we even continue to have the Winter Olympics. I suppose some sports could be held indoors like ice skating, but, you know, I can see a rough ahead to me thanks to the climate crisis”.
Using fake snow, while attempting to make the scene more realistic, provides a completely different and hazardous environment for the athletes. While real snow is made of soft snowflakes, fake snow is composed of dense frozen water droplets, similar to hard ice. This means collisions with the snow can be potentially perilous. In the case of Phaneuf, fake snow damages her sporting equipment: “I’ve had experiences where we’ve been to races and the only snow that could provide for us was extremely dirty and full of rocks. And as soon as you just ski, one-kilometer loop or two kilometers, your skis are just totally damaged… full of scratches and dents,” she says.
In spite of these struggles, many people view the Olympics as a sign of the impact of climate change and how we, as humans, must take action to protect the environment and maintain the season of winter. “This is a serious first-world problem,” say scientists at the University of Waterloo. Climate change is causing geopolitical strife… regional conflict… I think that if we’re still having Olympiads in at the end of this century, then we will have finally done something right and returned to normalcy.”