Two months before its flame would light the cauldron at the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony in February 2014, Russian organisers arranged for the Olympic torch to pass through the remote region of Altai.
In a part of the world where traditional dress is still worn and ancient shamanism still practiced after hundreds of years, the torch relay team sought to ask an unusual favour. It’s one the locals are unlikely to have received before, or since. For there, in a region straddling the borders of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, and where the annual temperature averages a bitter -3°C, Altai shamans were asked to pray for snow.
The divine intervention was not intended for the Altai Republic or its effortlessly frosty capital town of Gorno-Altaysk, but for the Olympic host city of Sochi, 5,000 kilometres away on the Black Sea coast. Before being awarded the Winter Games, the city’s main renown was as a tourist hotspot for Russians to flee the cold weather. With a subtropical climate, the beach resort had been a favourite summer retreat among the country’s elite, boasting visits from Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin.
In contrast to the 85 days of snow in Russia’s shaman-inhabited hinterlands, Sochi experienced only two snow days in 2013, producing less than a centimetre in total. With an average February temperature of 10°C, the Winter Olympics had arrived at the warmest city in Russia. Following several test events that were cancelled due to a lack of snow, Organising Committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko and his team were ready to try anything to ensure the conditions suitable for the biggest winter sports event on the planet. The shamans duly obliged.
But Sochi was not the first host to harbour concerns about the weather. Given the event’s reliance on the elements, barely a Winter Olympics has gone by without Mother Nature making her mark.
At the second Winter Olympics in 1928, Switzerland’s Alpine town of St Moritz saw the opening ceremony gatecrashed by a violent blizzard. Although it damaged the open-air stadium and made parading 400 athletes from 25 competing nations nigh on impossible, it wouldn’t be long before its accompanying white blanket would be much missed. Just days later, a warm foehn wind emerging from the Albula Alps saw temperatures rise dramatically, causing major disruption to the schedule.
When competitors set off at first light in the 50-kilometre cross-country ski, the crisp morning air was freezing. By midday, the foehn’s balmy influence saw the mercury rocketing towards 25°C, with Per Erik Hedlund the only skier able to handle the freakish conditions. The Swede finished 13 minutes ahead of an exhausted and bewildered field.
The unexpected heat saw a number of events postponed. The bobsleigh competition was cut from four runs to two, while the precarious melting surface resulted in the 10,000-metre speed-skating event being cancelled completely. The Argentinian contingent, the first Southern Hemisphere nation to compete at the Winter Olympics, must have wondered why they’d bothered to forgo their airy alpargatas in favour of bulky boots.
But the unseasonable weather did not deter the hosts, as St Moritz put its experience as a longstanding ski resort to savvy use. The figure skating was moved indoors to the Kulm hotel ice rink, while horse-drawn sleds were used for transportation around the venues. Despite the setbacks and delays, the Games were a success.
A 15-year-old Norwegian figure skater by the name of Sonja Henie became the youngest ever Olympic champion, a record that would stand for over 70 years. The skeleton made its Olympic debut on the ice track considered the birthplace of the sport, the Cresta Run, and the spectacular Olympiaschanze ski jump was unveiled as the world’s highest. It remained in use for 80 years.
Showing admirable composure, flexibility and stubborn resolve, St Moritz cut steps in the ice for its successors to follow. Four years later, Lake Placid shrugged off the heat, not to mention the raised eyebrows of the bemused Europeans, by bussing in snow from over the border in Canada. Both Cortina d’Ampezzo, in 1956, and Innsbruck, in 1964, drafted in the military to haul snow from nearby mountains. In the case of the latter, so little snow fell that it required the Austrian army to carve 20,000 ice bricks to form the bobsleigh run, and pack – by hand – 40,000 cubic meters of snow into the Alpine skiing routes.
By the time the Olympic flame returned to Lake Placid in 1980, its organisers didn’t need to knock on Canada’s door like a sheepish neighbour asking for sugar. Instead, machines producing snow were in place for the first time as the use of technology at the Games grew exponentially alongside its increasing prominence, popularity and cost. It wouldn’t be long before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) felt it was time for its winter showpiece to go it alone, announcing that the quadrennial event would, from 1994, no longer take place in the same year as its higher-profile summer cousin.
Now a prime-time entity in its own right, the Winter Olympics included everything that comes with such a status: multi-billion-dollar TV deals, unyielding advertising commitments, ambitious venue constructions, lavish opening ceremonies and the scrutiny of millions watching worldwide. It meant St Moritz’s legacy of stubborn resolve would be needed more than ever. But there was no longer much room for its other two traits from 1928: composure and flexibility.
A modern Winter Olympic Games simply does not entertain the possibility of postponements or cancellations. These days, when the Games begin, no blizzard, drought, or heatwave can stop it. But to beat Mother Nature at her own game, you need the brightest and most innovative minds in the business.
Today, Chris Doyle oversees weather forecasting centres in Western Canada. Back in 2010, he held one of the most important roles at the Vancouver Olympics, that of Chief Meteorologist.
“It took years off my life! All my hair fell out. I think that’s a pretty common experience for people involved with Games development. But I loved the pace, the excitement and the novelty of doing work we really knew could be used to make a difference.”
Within weeks of Vancouver winning the bid in 2003, Doyle and his team were presenting to John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC). It proved to be the start of a breathless seven-year project. Doyle was responsible for planning the entire weather operation; implementing technology, collecting data and training a team of forecasters for each outdoor venue. He brought in leading scientists from Canada and the USA to develop the world’s most advanced high-resolution weather models.
With little existing weather information from the mountain venues, Doyle prioritised putting equipment in place to ensure they had several seasons of data to work from by the time the Games began. But forecasting for the Olympics is not the same as advising Canadians on whether they’re going to need to pack an umbrella:
“When forecasting for huge areas like we have in Canada, we’re looking at regions of thousands of square kilometres. But venue forecasts are very specific and to a very specific sports weather threshold. Things like visibility and the intensity of the precipitation that falls on a very small location.”
Doyle’s team needed to design and install a state-of-the-art weather observing system that included both surface and upper air observations, a new Doppler weather radar, a UHF wind profiler, a profiling radiometer, and video cameras to provide the best possible observations at the outdoor venues.
As he proudly states, not only did they complete all of this on time and within budget, but the Games’ legacy network means that residents of Vancouver are still benefiting today from some of the technology put in place for the Olympics. Even the radar tower found a new home: “We donated the tower that the radar was mounted on to the village of Whistler, who used it as the launching point for one of those sky rides. So, it lives on!”.
But a forecaster’s most crucial role is not simply collecting data, nor even interpreting it. It’s being able to communicate their findings to those without a meteorological background, from the public watching on the TV to the decision makers at the Olympic Games. And that responsibility, as the key bridge between the forecasting team and the Games’ executive committee, fell on the shoulders of its Chief Meteorologist.
“They wouldn’t wait for the weather to happen to make a decision, they would look to us and say ‘what’s going to happen?’ and make a decision before. And that’s exactly how it worked.”
Doyle, who has since travelled to both Russia and South Korea to provide consultation to Vancouver’s successors, says his team’s forecasts influenced several key decisions at the Games. From using wind readings to set the start times for the ski jump, to completely overhauling the Paralympics schedule when it became apparent the high-speed events were due to clash with days of poor visibility.
“That was very rewarding because we could see we were making a real substantive contribution to the Games with our forecasts, not with observed weather, which is the way decisions were made in the past.”
As gratifying as some elements of his role were, it also meant casting Doyle as a harbinger of doom on more than one occasion. The city’s famous Whistler resort brought few concerns thanks to its high-altitude. But organisers were sweating on the snow status of Cypress Mountain, where the freestyle skiing and snowboarding were due to take place. Just north of central Vancouver, not only was Cypress at lower altitude, but Doyle’s forecast suggested that it could be affected by El Nino, an irregular climate phenomenon born in the Pacific Ocean. Its warming effect on Vancouver would be significant:
“We were worried about the onset of El-Nino conditions in early 2010. It was expected, although we hoped to be wrong. But, as we forecast, El-Nino conditions did arrive early in the spring of 2010. And in January, the month prior to the opening ceremonies, we basically watched the Cypress venue melt away.”
As a precaution, VANOC closed the Cypress Mountain resort to the public and called Doyle into an executive committee meeting with CEO John Furlong, where he was asked to provide the latest forecasts. It wasn’t good news.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry to say that we don’t see any appreciable cooling in the near future and very little chance of extra snow before the opening ceremony’. He said ‘OK, I’m really sorry to hear that’. Once they had the information from us then they executed their own contingency plan. The organising committee was ready.”
“They had the forecast in hand and they knew who to call.”
Among Vancouver’s contingency plans included the use of a snow reserve they had been stockpiling since Doyle’s early forecasts. Machine-made from 95 million litres of water, it was a technique that the Russians would adopt four years later. In Sochi, 25 million cubic feet of snow cloaked in thick reflective blankets proved such a striking view that these shimmering mountains became tourist attractions in themselves.
To SMI Snowmakers, the architects behind these hulking masses, this was nothing new. From Sarajevo to Salt Lake, Calgary to PyeongChang, much of the white canvas on which the world’s elite athletes have been making history hasn’t come from the heavens, but from machines built in Michigan. Since 1974, SMI have brought a whole new meaning to the phrase sun’s out, guns out.
Brooke Vanderkelen Alba is a third-generation snowmaker at SMI, the granddaughter of founders Jim and Betty Vanderkelen. Having been immersed in the wintry world of snowmaking since “right out of diapers”, she has witnessed first-hand the growth of the business from its modest beginnings at the back of a local carpet shop, to the global enterprise it is today.
“We’ve got distributors and reps all over the world. We have customers that have a handful of equipment, for the smaller hills, to very large-scale customers with over 400 snow guns.”
Olympic hosts can be filed into the latter. In Sochi, SMI helped build the Rosa Khutor resort from scratch, installing 450 snowmaking stations over 35 kilometres of slopes for the alpine, snowboard and freestyle competitions. In order to provide the 12,000 gallons-per-minute of water required, they built two lakes sourced by a mountain river, fed by 35,000 metres of pipes. And while gravity provided some welcome help, eight megawatts of pumping power was still required to deliver the water at high-pressure.
A similar set-up was put in place by SMI at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre three years ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea, including a man-made lake storing 33 million gallons of water. But, for snowmakers, no two resorts present the same brief:
“In Sochi, we were there from the start to the finish of the resort being built. That was a really cool experience to see it from being a mountain that hadn’t been touched before to being this beautiful resort. But at the base area there’s very marginal conditions, it gets really warm. When you land at the airport there are palm trees! Whereas the Jeongseon Alpine Centre was colder with less coverage area. Both venues were very rocky with steep terrain, so the challenge was the actual construction on steep slopes.”
Nonetheless, SMI exude confidence in their abilities to make snow in even the most testing of locations. In their promotional videos, they promise to “extend your snow season with or without Mother Nature’s permission.” Another bold claim gives an insight into why it is their phone number Olympic organisers have been dialling for over 30 years: “because world-class sporting events are hosted not where the snow could be, but where it will be”.
Naturally, technology has improved since Jim Vanderkelen’s SnowStream 320 launched to little fanfare in 1974. Now under the watchful eye of Jim’s son Joe, machines that resemble jumbo jet engines with names like Puma, Viking and Pole Cat are all automated. Like most tech these days, they can even be operated via smartphone. But the underlying principles of snowmaking remain the same, as Joe Vanderkelen explains:
“Snowmaking involves a lot of water. Compressed air mixing in a small nozzle with water droplets creates what we call ice seeds, and those ice seeds will then nucleate the bulk water, blowing it out and then the cold environment freezes those small water droplets.”
SMI’s snow machines are able to produce snow that, while many still describe it as artificial, is actually no different to the frozen water that falls naturally from the clouds: “Machine made snow is like two-week old natural snow,” says Vanderkelen. “In that natural snow sometimes takes hours or days to form as it’s going through the sky. We’re forming that snow crystal in somewhere between three and 15 seconds.”
For snowmakers like SMI, business is booming. Just as Jim Vanderkelen predicted, the clamour for machine-made snow continues to increase in tandem with the pressure on ski resorts to remain open during peak times. His granddaughter Brooke has no doubt as to why:
“Climate change is real. It’s something that’s very heavily linked to snowmaking, which is becoming more popular with resorts just to ensure that they can open for their customers and provide a great experience. One thing in particular that we’ve noticed is what we call snow gun density. So instead of having snow machines that are 100 to 150 metres apart from each other, they’re going to 20 to 50 metres apart. You’re getting snow guns that are closer and closer. That has been a trend that we’ve been seeing in this industry.”
It’s good news for those in the snowmaking business. But it paints a far bleaker picture for the future of Winter Olympics.
If subtropical Sochi seemed a peculiar destination even to those with only a passing interest in the Winter Olympics, to those whose job it is to study the climate on a daily basis, it was inexplicable. Professor Daniel Scott was among the perplexed:
“We thought Sochi was a really poor choice. What didn’t sit well with us was when you go to a location like that and you know the probability of marginal weather conditions are high, you’re affecting the integrity of the competition. It’s not like Russia’s short on cold places. These athletes are training for four years to get to this point, maybe even half their life or more is dedicated to this one event. And to leave it to the vagaries of weather? You can’t control it all, but you can certainly put your games in places where you’re going to minimise the impact of weather.”
So baffled had Professor Scott been by the IOC’s choice of host, that in the months preceding the Sochi Games he and his University of Waterloo team released a paper on the future of the Winter Olympics in a warming world. Its conclusions were stark. It stated that the average high temperatures at host cities have been steadily increasing, from 0.4°C in the 1920-50s, to 3.1°C in the 1960-90s, to over 7.8°C in those held in the 21st Century. The report was careful to clarify that this is only partly attributable to the effects of climate change; with the IOC’s increased willingness to award the Games to warmer locations also a key factor.
It’s a habit that they will soon be forced to reconsider. After applying current climate change models to previous locations, the report also found that just eight of the 21 venues – including 2022 hosts Beijing – would be climatically suitable to again host a Winter Olympics by the end of the century. In this scenario, the likes of Turin, Oslo, Vancouver and inaugural hosts Chamonix are deemed no longer capable of providing the conditions where even machine-made snow is able to help. And even if the low emission targets of the 2015 Paris climate accord are met, Sochi falls short within 30 years from now.
“In Sochi, we saw exactly as we might have thought it would play out. The snow surfaces, I would argue, weren’t fair for some of the competitions. Some of the athletes said it was bordering on unsafe. We had skiers coming up short on the freestyle and we had the temperatures so high some of the cross-country skiing athletes were wearing short sleeves, they were overheating.”
Professor Scott adds that his research involved looking into the bidding process for the Games. While there was a commendable focus on environmental and social impacts, alongside the fundamental factors of finance and facilities, he was surprised to note that there was very little in the way of criteria on the ability to maintain competitive and safe surfaces, particularly for the outdoor events. To that end, he believes the IOC needs to be savvier in its host selection process:
“An individual host could do a bit more in terms of showing what their climatology is. In the Vancouver and the Sochi bids, both talked about the investment that they were going to put in for snowmaking technology, relating to the number of [snow] guns.”
“In terms of what I would have liked to see from the IOC would be for them to get each of their sporting bodies – be it the luge people or the ski cross people – and ask ‘what are your ideal conditions thermally for your athletes?’, ‘what are the ideal conditions for the snow and how does that translate into weather on the day?’, so that those bids coming in must show this criteria, meeting the thresholds of what we would consider quality conditions for fair and safe competition.”
It’s true that some athletes weren’t happy in Sochi. When the fifth Olympic ring failed to emerge from giant LED snowflakes during the opening ceremony, it foreshadowed the quality of the playing surfaces: close, but not good enough. Slush and mush were some of the terms used to describe the conditions, but others weren’t so diplomatic.
American snowboarder Hannah Teter, a former gold and silver medallist, said the half-pipe was “dangerous because it’s crappy.” Compatriot Danny Davis labelled the same venue “garbage”, adding “it’s a bummer to show up to an event like the Olympics and not have the quality of the half-pipe match the quality of the riders.” Shaun White, the snowboarding icon who was aiming for his third consecutive Olympic gold, also complained after falling during practice. Despite being favourite, he could finish only fourth. And after defending women’s champion Torah Bright also crashed, her coach showed typical Australian tact: “I’ve come to the point of being diplomatic, but it’s actually very shit.”
The criticisms weren’t confined to the half-pipe. Champion cross-country skier Bill Demong lamented a lack of structure to the snow, making it hard to ski on. Along with a number of high-profile tumbles, temperatures that hit highs of 11°C in the mountains prompted skiers to stuff snow down their suits to cool down during races. With thermometers hitting an ice-cream melting 20°C at the coastal Olympic Park, it culminated in the bizarre sight of thousands of people turning up to watch ice hockey, skating and curling dressed in t-shirts and shorts. At times, it was warmer than the summer Olympics in London two years earlier.
By its culmination, Sochi had broken all records for the warmest Winter Olympics. Records that were set just four years before that in Vancouver. Both hosts found that no matter how many snow guns they had in their holster, nature was still the quickest to draw. For even snowmaking requires temperatures of freezing to produce in bulk. So, when Plan B is out the window, Plan C comes in all frantic shapes and sizes, as Vancouver’s Chris Doyle recalls:
“We couldn’t make snow during the month of January. We made the decision to remediate the venue at Cypress Mountain after the amount of snow stockpiled at the top was inadequate to match the melt-off. The committee activated their plan to obtain additional snow from elsewhere by any means possible, including via helicopter-borne buckets from nearby peaks, and by employing a fleet of 300 dump trucks to drive 150 kilometres west to pick up snow from a provincial park located inland.”
Bales of straw were used to bulk up bare slopes, while cannisters of carbon dioxide were inserted into the freestyle jumps to act as internal refrigeration. Maintaining the snowpack throughout the day and night took a Herculean effort behind-the-scenes, recalling the Austrian military operations at Innsbruck in 1964. It went completely unnoticed by those watching at home:
“If you looked at the Cypress venue on TV it looked like a winter wonderland. But if you were there in person you could see to the left and to the right – mud!”
Whether the IOC took any heed of Professor Scott’s report is unknown, but one year following its release they awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games. The Chinese capital, like 2018 hosts PyeongChang, scores well in the report despite the lack of snow. Its cold and dry climate allows for enough snowmaking to turn a desert into a snow globe. Which will be useful, given that Zhangjiakou, the venue chosen for the skiing events, lies on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
In awarding Beijing the honour of becoming the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympics, the IOC rejected a strong bid from Almaty. Kazakhstan’s largest city put authenticity at the heart of its campaign, promising “real snow, real winter ambience, real winter games” alongside its slogan: “keeping it real”.
Despite its longstanding tradition of winter sports and picture-perfect Ile Alatau mountain range, Almaty lost by four votes to a city with only a fledgling interest in skiing, and one that, according to the IOC’s own evaluation, has minimal annual snowfall and will rely completely on artificial snow. They also conceded that “due to the lack of natural snow the look of the venue may not be aesthetically pleasing.”
In praising the Beijing bid for its “focus on sustainability, legacy and transparency”, the IOC’s decision upset many among the international community concerned about a human rights record that has seen little improvement since China hosted the summer Games in 2008. Add worries about air quality, existing problems with water supply and the fact that plans for the Olympic village require the relocation of 1,500 residents, and it appears that the IOC still believes it has enough might and muscle to place the Winter Olympics wherever it wants to, regardless of geographical, political or climatological obstacles.
But if they won’t listen to the experts, they might just take a bit more notice when the same message is coming from its very own talent. Founded by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2007, Protect Our Winters (POW) is a campaign movement comprised of professional athletes, sports brands, ski resorts and thousands in the winter sports community who are seeing the effect of climate change with their own eyes. Sandy Trust heads up the newly-formed UK branch of the group that has over 130,000 supporters worldwide:
“If you live in a city in Britain, you’re not going to be particularly linked in to nature in the way we were even 50 years ago. Whereas if you live your life going to ski resorts, you’re inherently much more attuned to what’s going on at the extremes and you notice changes.”
During the first week of the Sochi Games, POW partnered with 105 Olympians in releasing a statement that called for a global commitment on climate change. Led by cross-country skier Andrew Newell, signatories included fellow Americans Danny Davis and Arielle Gold along with Norway’s Astrid Jacobsen and Italy’s Elena Runggaldier.
“Snow conditions are becoming much more inconsistent, weather patterns more erratic, and what was once a topic for discussion is now reality and fact. Our climate is changing and we are losing our winters,” read the petition, also referencing Professor Scott’s research.
While the release of the petition was meticulously planned to coincide with the start of the Olympics, the very public criticisms that followed were not premeditated, but a sign that long-time frustrations were bubbling over. In both cases, it showed that athletes were prepared to use their global platform to not only call out governments but also those governing their own sport. Echoing Professor Scott’s conclusions, it was clear that they too felt that the IOC needed to up their game when it came to factoring in climate, and climate change, when selecting future hosts.
The following year, every country in the world signed up to the Paris climate accord that committed to limit greenhouse gases and reduce global temperatures. A year after that, Donald Trump was elected on a vow to renege on the deal. It’s fair to say that, especially in the States, POW has a fight on its hands.
Back in the UK, Trust is focusing less on the political arena and is instead prioritising outreach within the winter sports community. He says he wants to do this through a more positive outlook than tends to be associated with climate change campaigns, “to move people from feeling helpless to feeling hopeful.”
“If you’re associating it with cool snowboarders and skiers, Ed Leigh from Ski Sunday and brands like Patagonia, then it’s much easier and more fun than ‘oh God climate change, I mustn’t turn the lights on’.”
He hopes this optimistic approach will reap real dividends, particularly around the time of the Winter Olympics, World Championships and X Games. But he laughs and acknowledges the conflict when asked if an Olympics that struggles with the conditions might actually be the best PR they could hope to get:
“That’s the bittersweet contradiction with this. Clearly, we’re all passionate skiers and snowboarders so we want to see good snow, because if you continue to see poor winters then that’s when snow sport businesses and resorts start to fail. Anecdotally, some banks in the States have stopped lending to ski resorts below a certain altitude.”
“If we get a really cold snowy winter, inevitably people will say things like ‘I’m not sure about this climate change thing’, and that’s when you get into the weather versus climate change debate. We obviously want good conditions, but when it isn’t we’re also: ‘that’s good for us’.”
It mirrors the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Winter Olympics. Since adding environmental protection to the Olympic Charter in 1996, it’s true that the IOC have actively encouraged hosts to show off their sustainability credentials and offset emissions in a bid to produce carbon-neutral Games. On this, they would argue that they lead the way in comparison to other major sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup.
But before handing out the green stars, consider the gallons of water used in snowmaking, the gigawatts of energy used in refrigeration, and the litres of fuel used for helicopters, trucks and other transportation. Then consider the peculiarity of natural snow no longer being deemed a prerequisite to hosting the world’s premier snow sports event. The IOC don’t appear to be changing tack on their drive to host the Winter Olympics in increasingly incompatible and resource-sapping locations. For that, the environment won’t thank them.
It’s why the likes of POW and Sandy Trust are certainly not convinced by the IOC’s approach: “There is a desire to do the right thing from a reputational perspective, but I’m not sure that’s backed up by a really robust climate change policy, which might have some clearer objectives and raise the bar a bit higher.”
Until then, one thing is for certain. From Beijing in 2022 to wherever the flame journeys to next, the expertise and ingenuity of snow whisperers the world over will continue to prove indispensable to its host cities. The men and women engaged in a quiet battle with the elements to ensure that, at least for now, the Winter Olympics continue to enthral a global audience of millions.
And if all else fails? The shamans will be waiting
Chris Doyle, Environment and Climate Change Canada
Professor Daniel Scott, University of Waterloo
Sandy Trust, Protect Our Winters
Brooke Vanderkelen Alba, SMI Snowmakers
Filipp Romanovskij (Unsplash)
Mattias Olsson (Unsplash)
National Archives of Norway (Wikimedia Commons)
Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 (Flickr)
Sochi 2014 Winter Games (Flickr)
Vegar S Hansen (Wikimedia Commons)