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Climate change impacts winter sports

By Andrew Newell (USA Today) - February 10, 2014

It took four years of intense training, but I am now in Sochi as a proud member of the US Cross Country Skiing Olympic Team. It is an incredible honor to represent my country and my community at the Olympic Games. While our U.S. team walked out together during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremonies, I was moved by the power of almost 100 nations uniting behind a spirit of global competition and collaboration. While thousands of athletes put their issues aside to come together for one cause every four years it troubles me that world leaders have yet to unite and cooperate as a global community. For me, the most pressing issue is the threat of rapid global climate change to my work, my sport, and my love-skiing.

As a skier, my life revolves around winter and being outside. Years spent training have not only honed my skills, but also shown me the negative impacts of climate change first-hand. There have been countless times in the past 10 years when our early season competitions have been delayed or canceled due to lack of snow, or our spring and summer training camps disrupted due to erratic weather or insufficient snowpack. It’s no coincidence then that the last decade was also the hottest decade ever recorded.

Without efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, the winter sport economy in my home state of Vermont will disappear in the near future, and has already begun feeling the heat. Between 2000-2010, the snow sport industry lost over $1 billion in revenue as a result of shrinking snow packs and shortened winters. In a 2012 report detailing global warming’s effect on the snow industry, scientists predicted that more than half of the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast are at risk of not being able to maintain a 100-day season by 2039. Many Vermonters rely on the snowpack for jobs, income, and well-being.

Even the most reliable snowfall areas have seen a decrease in storms and precipitation. In the last few seasons, Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden, which host world cup ski events in November and December, have had to rely upon man-made snow and injected ice for races. Many Nordic athletes, myself included, train on glaciers during the summer months.

I’ve witnessed the visible recession of off season ski destinations such as Eagle Glacier in Alaska and the Dachstein Glacier in Austria in the last decade. Warming temperatures melting snow has meant in recent years, summer skiing conditions on glaciers have become too unstable to train on. Some countries have resorted to skiing indoors in artificial ski tunnels due to unpredictable conditions.

The conditions in Sochi are no exception. The organizers of these Winter Games ran into similar problems and had to go to extreme and unorthodox means to supply the snow necessary to hold high-level competitions. Workers in Russia have been stockpiling nearly 16 million cubic feet of snow and adding a special kind of salt to prevent melting.

Temperature and snowpack are two of the most crucial factors for success at previous winter games, according to new research by Daniel Scott at the University of Waterloo. And Nordic and alpine skiing are especially vulnerable.

This past year, I decided to take what action I could within my community. Frankly, I was tired of waiting for politics to catch up to the climate impacts now being felt worldwide. This fall in Park City, Utah I started collecting signatures from other Olympic hopefuls in the US and internationally. With help from some partners, we set up a website, Athletes for Action, to elevate climate change solutions amongst our community. We recently hit our initial goal of 100 professional winter sports athletes signed on. We athletes are calling on world leaders to come together at the UN Framework Convention in Paris 2015 and finally take bold and immediate measures to tackle climate change. This is a small step, but I realized that everyone can take action and everyone has a voice and we should expect our World leaders to put politics aside for the protection of our environment.

I felt such hope and pride during the Parade of Nations at Fisht Stadium. I remember looking up at the five rings of the Olympic Games and only then realizing their power. Each represents a different region’s unique character and contribution to our global community. They are not separate rings, but instead overlapping and united.

I hope world leaders can look to the Olympics for inspiration, come together, and help solve one of the greatest challenges of my generation, global climate change and building a more just clean energy future. In witnessing the strength of the global community here, I am left with tremendous hope that when ordinary people are given a shot at the podium, world leaders will follow.

Andrew Newell is a cross-country skier on Team USA who will be competing in the Sochi Olympics.