"What can the Winter Olympic sports tell us about climate change?"
Our guest blogger is long-time commenter Richard Brenne. He’s an award-winning screenwriter who teaches a NASA-sponsored on-line Global Climate Change class, serves on the American Meteorological Society’s Committee to Improve Climate Change Communication, and produces documentaries and large-scale town meetings and panels about climate change that he moderates with humor and insight.
What can the Winter Olympic sports tell us about climate change?
Most of these sports began in climates far different from our own, with archeologists finding ski fragments 4500 to 6500 years old, which is how old my teenage daughter thinks my all-wood skis in the basement are.
Skis were long and propulsion and control came from a single long pole, something the Norwegians re-created at the Lillehammer Olympics opening ceremony in 1994 when Telemark skiers bombed down the ski jump hills above the grandstands. At yesterday’s opening ceremony in Vancouver temperatures were a little warmer (due to location more than climate change) and anything similar would have to be done on rollerblades, skateboards or in rain boots.
Bones were attached to boots to create the first ice skates, then metal skates were developed in places like the Netherlands, where the frozen canals provided skaters with probably the fastest means of consistent self-propulsion until the bicycle around 1900 hundreds of years later.
Icy scenes with skating, hockey-like games and baby carriages on metal skate blades were painted by many Dutch Masters in the 1600s during the coldest century of the Little Ice Age.
If the Dutch had always had the climate they have today, speed skating would not be the national passion it is.
Olympic speed skating was held on outdoor, naturally-frozen ice from 1924 when the Winter Olympics began up through 1956, and it’s been held on artificially-frozen ice ever since. There are many other factors involved including increasingly large cities instead of Alpine resorts hosting the Olympics, but with the Earth warming it’s hard to imagine even scheduling Olympic speed skating on natural ice in Chamonix, St. Moritz, Lake Placid, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Oslo and Cortina d’Ampezzo today because there’d be a much smaller chance of having good enough natural ice to skate.
In 1997 my daughter’s speed skating coach, a two-time Olympian, skated the epic Elfstedentocht, or Eleven Cities Tour speed skating race over 125 miles of lakes, rivers and canals in the north of The Netherlands. This might be the most uniquely loved event in Dutch culture, coming out of their Little Ice Age love affair with speed skating (think Hans Brinker, who today would be playing video games). They need thick ice for the thousands who skate and from the sanctioning of the race in 1909 they held the race 14 times in the next 77 years, but only once during the last 23 years.
A sister race was developed from Uppsula, Sweden to Stockholm several hundred miles north in 1999 on a set date each year, but in 2003 the date had to be moved to whenever there was sufficient ice and in 2008 there wasn’t such ice at any time during the winter and the race was cancelled for that year.
As with everything I mention here there are other factors like more skaters meaning the ice needs to be thicker and some possible urban heat island effect, but the overall trend is definitely global warming, not cooling, and anyone who tells you otherwise might consider walking out on thin ice far into the Baltic.
Bandy is like field hockey played on ice skates on a soccer-sized surface. In many parts of Europe the sport was more popular than ice hockey and was played as a demonstration sport in the 1952 Winter Olympics. In the 1913 European Championships England, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands all fielded competitive teams who could practice and play Bandy on natural ice for long periods most winters in those nations, something that may have been possible part of this winter but would have been impossible to expect with any regularity or consistency most years during the last few decades.
Certainly World War I, then the Depression and World War II impacted Bandy, but not as much as climate change has. In 1882 England developed the international rules (and we know how the English are about rules and ruling) of Bandy, expecting the sport would be played indefinitely in England and later throughout Europe. I have yet to meet any English person who’s ever heard of Bandy today.
Bandy is still popular today in Scandinavia and parts of Russia (and is part of the reason NHL players from these nations who played Bandy can often out-skate Canadians and Americans on 100-foot wide Olympic ice as we saw in the 2006 Torino Olympics) but is more often played indoors on artificial ice even there. Again there are technological, social and economic reasons for this as well, but the sad fact remains that aside from in drinks, since the 1970s there is much less natural ice in the world every decade than the decade before.
And finally there is curling, and by this I mean the ice sport rather than the hair styling technique. Every other Winter Olympic sport takes incredible courage, in fact these could be called the Courage Olympics. The majority of participants in Olympic curling are sweeping, which would be like adding vacuuming to the Summer Olympics. (And just for the record, Winter Olympic biathlon is how they rob convenience stores in Scandinavia.)
My prejudice aside, curling began during the Little Ice Age in Scotland, where large rocks or stones were slid across frozen lakes into targets where there were other stones. Given global warming if this sport were being developed in Scotland today it would more often be called “Throwing the rock to the bottom of the lake.”
With enough Scottish accent, however, this could sound cool. As with all the skating sports, what began as exclusively outdoor sports on natural ice are far more often indoor sports on artificial ice for many reasons including global warming.
Patagonia founder and rock and ice climbing pioneer Yvon Chounaird and others have told me about ice climb first ascents they made of frozen waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies during the mid-1970s. In the last few years when they’ve finally returned to visit and asked if the ice climbs are being repeated, they’re told things like “What ice climbs? They’re mostly waterfalls now.”
Extreme ski mountaineers like Chris Davenport have told me that classic first descents of snow and ice couloirs in the Alps during the 1980s are now rarely repeated because they are now more often rock than snow.
The classic north face climbs of the Matterhorn and Eiger were historically summer climbs when the weather was best, but now they’re rarely climbed in the summer because there isn’t enough snow and ice to keep rocks in place and the rock fall makes them too hazardous.
Gardeners, farmers and arborists will tell you about longer growing seasons, fewer cold snaps and the migration of pests northward in the northern hemisphere.
All of this is consistent with global warming, with the temperature data and with the stunning retreat of Arctic Ocean sea ice and glaciers and icefields on Greenland, Antarctica and around the world. If the Earth’s long-term trend were cooling, then the overwhelming majority of these myriad pieces of evidence would be in the opposite direction.
Denying climate change is denying all science, observation and common sense as well.
— Richard Brenne