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

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13 Responses to What can the Winter Olympic sports tell us about climate change?

  1. fj2 says:

    Good piece. The cold is good!

    From what I understand speed skating is the fastest unassisted method of self-propulsion where elite athletes achieve 40 miles per hour coming out of turns. Elite cyclists have achieved speeds greater than 80 miles an hour in highly specialized faired bicycles also an amazing feat despite that they are assisted by a relatively simple mechanical device amplifying mobility by 3 to 4 times.

    Ice boats attained an early longtime speed record for vehicles of about 144 miles per hour back in 1914.

    All in all, it should be obvious that it is possible to achieve very high levels of practical convenient mobility largely based on human power integrated with natural systems without the outdated very wasteful destructive technologies we seem to depend so much on in the developed world.

  2. Wit's End says:

    Richard Brenne! I had no idea you were a screenwriter. I have a question for you! I can’t find any contact information for you, please email me at witsendnj at yahoo dot com.

    Also are there any links to watch the CU Salon Series USA – the Big Loser in Global Climate Change that you moderated? I only found a really short clip from that…and what about the NASA sponsored on-line class?

  3. Lizzie Petrino says:

    Great snowfall in Ruidoso, Arizona and the dustbowl southwest. I enjoy the Ice skating at the Galleria in Addison Tx. Guess the dustbowl claim from 12 months ago didn’t hold water.

  4. mike roddy says:

    Fascinating stuff, Richard, thanks, and I always like your other comments, too. I took a stab at writing a post climate apocalypse screenplay myself a couple of years ago (2112). Got some good feedback from producers, but, big surprise, nobody bought it.

    You should meet my friend Bob Pool if you don’t know him already. He wrote Armageddon and Outbreak, and is a science geek, too. Bob’s son Sean is a really bright young man, and works here for Joe.

    My email is I promise not to send you my screenplay unless you ask for it!

  5. Dennis says:

    “If the Earth’s long-term trend were cooling, each of these myriad pieces of evidence would be in the opposite direction.”

    Looking at this otherwise excellent post through the lens of the recent communications problem in climate science, we need to be careful how we write items like this. You know what you mean, I know what you mean, but there are people out there who will distort what you wrote to claim you’re pushing scientific evidence for global warming.

    I can see some idiot of Fox News or one of the denier blogs right now ignoring the obvious anecdotal nature of the history of winter sports and making a false claim that you’re pushing an unproven link between changes and sports and climate. Rather than writing “each of these myriad pieces of evidence would be in the opposite direction,” it might be better to write “many of these pieces of anecdotal information might not exist at all.”

    I apologize if I sound like a pain, but we have to be extra careful with how we deliver the non-science information to the public to be very clear that we are not making scientific claims. We need to do that every time because the anti-science lie machine out there is just too loud.

    [JR: Fixed.]

  6. paulm says:

    Denying climate change is denying all science, observation and common sense as well.

    We should keep the messages accurate, simply, consistent and say them firmly, LOUDLY and constantly.

  7. Greg N says:

    Great piece, thanks Richard.

  8. fj2 says:

    re 5. Dennis ” . . . we need to be careful . . .” [JR: Fixed.]”


    6. paulm, “Denying climate change is denying all science . . .”

    The broad denial process is basically a sham funded by special interests and it may be best to expose it as a sham and not to over-react.

    Dealing with very complicated stuff it is normal to make mistakes. Part of the sham is that deniers seek advantage by focusing on the inevitable minor mistakes.

    Energies spend on developing very positive scale-appropriate solutions addressing the climate crisis are likely the most expedient way to move forward.

  9. Barry says:

    Perhaps a phrasing that could work with some folks is “more energetic weather”.

    People who understand climate science readily make the link between “warmer” and “more energetic”. It is easy for such folks to understand that more energetic storms in winter are consistent with global “warming”. But it is not a link everyone “gets”.

    When you press on the accelerator in your car you are creating “engine warming” but more importantly to the passengers in the car, you are also doing “more energetic driving”. Passengers grip the arm rests a bit tighter and look up from their books. Everyone can appreciate viscerally that more energetic driving will mean catching more air off speed bumps, more bottoming out in dips, more often drifting out of your lane in sharp curves, and so on.

    I think the scientific fact that “warming” = “more energetic” is lost on most people who are just paying attention at the headline level.

    A similar confusion occurs over “climate change”. The problem isn’t change…it is the rate of change. As in “too rapid climate change”.

    CO2 is making the climate system more energetic. All this extra energy is accelerating climate changes so rapidly that many natural systems are struggling and becoming sick.

    We all need to help get this message that Joe has focused on, out to the public: global warming will bring more energetic weather events of all kinds.

  10. I bought a six pack of non-alcoholic beer to watch the Men’s Downhill Finals today on the tube. I should have bought real beer to drown out my sorrow over the fact that it is raining and they can’t ski on what we here in the Northwest call Cascade Concrete. It is only 45F on the slopes about seven degrees above average for right now. Even 37F is too warm for good downhill racing. Should we blame this on climate change or our Spanish friend el Nino? How about both!

    I went flying this morning in a Cessna 172 here in Vancouver (USA) and it was so warm I was wondering if I should check the density altitude charts to see if the runway was long enough to get airborne even though it is February. Last month was just the warmest January on record in Portland Oregon. This heat makes airplanes performance decrease and I think it is doing the same to my body, being a true Northwest boy who enjoys cold weather. Maybe I should move to Washington DC and lobby Congress on the Energy/ Climate Change Bill, since there I could cross country ski to work.

    And yes, those of us who do spent lots of time and energy on Climate Change education must choose our words carefully. That is why Richard and I have created a detailed and understandable Community Education on line course called Understanding Global Climate Change at Portland Community College in Portland Oregon. It only costs $25 and you can even hear Richard’s jokes for only $5 more for a downloadable Richard Joke software program (although most have not chosen this extra feature). The course features world experts like Ben Santer, Dan Schrag, Bob Henson, Bette Otto-Bleisner, Phil Mote and others. We have sessions like “Why should we believe climate models?” and “The top ten reasons why we KNOW climate change is influenced by humans”. We hope this educational experience goes out across the nation and world and reaches the masses of people who are so uninformed or misinformed, or simply could care less, so that worrying about the difference between “other direction” and “nonexistent” would not be our concern. Visit the course home page at, and please do consider taking this course (if for no other reason than the fact that if no one buys Richard’s joke software, the President of the college may have to fire him!)

    Thank you Richard for another insightful piece of GCC education. By the way, while flying over Vancouver (USA) this morning, I did not need to worry about carburetor icing!

    Toby Dittrich
    Physics Dept
    Portland Community College

  11. Michael T. says:

    ABC World News just did a story on the Olympics and on the record warmth in Vancouver. They said January was the warmest on record for Vancouver and that it has rained for the past week or so. It’s been having an effect on the snowboarding because most of the snow is just slush they said. They even had to bring in bales of hay to harden the snowpack. Shots of the mountain were shown with little to no snow, which shocked my because I didn’t think the lack of snow was that severe, but it truly was. They didn’t go into explaining El Nino or global warming but at least they reported the story accurately.

  12. GarethD says:

    @fj2 The fastest unassisted method of self-propulsion is not speed skating. Downhill speed skiers regularly achieve 125 – 150 miles per hour. That beats your cyclists and ice boats as well.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Most of the winter sports now have an “x-treme” roller- version, like luge and street luge or ice skating and rollerblading. There are also rollerskis. The only one without a potential summer version is curling unless you have “stones” with ball bearings on the bottom. (you’d still need sweepers to sweep off dirt) No reason you can’t invent a street 4-man bobsled.

    The biggest difference is pavement is not slippery like ice, so a luge driver is way more likely to get injured. (street lugers wear motorcycle gear) Thus, these brave athletes will have to be even braver. The summer games could be held in a place that used to have winter during the cool season to avoid heatstroke.