As most of the East Coast of the United States continues to dig itself out from another devastating winter storm that dumped ice, slush and, in some spots, more than a foot of snow on the ground, many of us have had little else to do* other than grab a blanket, stay warm and watch the Winter Olympics all day long.
(*Note: little else besides shoveling. There has been a lot of shoveling. If shoveling were an Olympic sport, I'm confident I could be a medalist at this point.)
The irony of watching these Winter Olympics during a snowstorm, however, is that there is no snow at the Winter Olympics. None. There is barely enough snow to even hold the events in the mountains. Seriously. From Liz Clarke of The Washington Post:
As the mild temperatures that started the week at the 2014 Winter Games crept even higher, Sochi’s Olympic organizers confirmed Tuesday that work had begun shoveling some of the snow that has been stockpiled in storage onto the race venues in the mountains.
Sochi’s snow-contingency plans include collecting 710,000 cubic meters of snow over the past two years and stowing it in insulated silos. In addition, officials have hundreds of “snow guns” capable of manufacturing snow and blasting it where needed.
Snow guns. With all the problems in Sochi, the term "snow guns" seems to fit right in. Oh, and if Russia needs any more snow, some of us have a few thousand cubic meters we could send over. Though it will probably melt once it gets there.
Temperatures in Sochi are so high that, according to Weather.com, highs have reached over 60 degrees this week and will be in the 50s throughout the duration of the Games. More importantly, however, are the low temperatures, which should not dip below 42 degrees anytime soon. The snow and ice are melting during the day and do not have a chance to refreeze at night. For most winter sports, this is not good for event conditions.
The mild temperatures have been great for the athletes, who seem to be enjoying the unusually mild temperatures for the Winter Games. They don't, however, seem to be enjoying the impact the weather is having on their events.
The changes to the super combined come just days after American Bode Miller publicly complained about the conditions on the mountains of Rosa Khutor.
According to John Meyer of The Denver Post, Miller said that the difference in when competitors left the gate in the downhill earlier this week had a huge impact on the results: "Twenty minutes of time (in the start order), or half an hour of time, makes a massive difference in snow conditions. I didn't really make any mistakes in the middle and bottom of the course, and lost a ton of time."
Miller failed to medal in the super combined on Friday, and while every racer had to navigate the same course, a truncated or manipulated downhill portion of that event could have absolutely played a role in the outcome. So too could the changing conditions.
None of these issues should have been a surprise to anyone.
According to WeatherSpark.com, the chance of snow in Sochi this time of year is just 12 percent, and the chance of there being snow on the ground at any point during the Olympics is around 5 percent.
Historically, the average high temperature during the day in Sochi is nearly 50 degrees, with average lows around 36 degrees, well above freezing.
Again per WeatherSpark.com, the coldest day in Sochi this winter saw a low of just 23 degrees, and temperatures go below freezing at any point just once every 10 days.
The weather in the Olympic Park of Sochi may have less of an impact on the mostly indoor events, for which the temperature can be controlled to a point. There have, however, been questions about the speedskating ice by commentators, as temperatures inside that venue have contributed to making the ice relatively slower. Perhaps that is just a narrative for the television audience, though, as Sochi ice has produced two Olympic records so far this year.
Per David Wharton of the Los Angeles Times, some of the curlers have complained about inconsistent ice during their matches. Conveniently, perhaps, the complaints usually come after a bad shot or a tough loss. There have even been issues with the ice in the hockey arenas.
The outdoor events have been a bigger issue. Even in the mountain regions above Sochi, temperatures have been far too warm for ideal conditions. In addition to the Alpine issues in the super combined and downhill thus far, the snowboarding pipe—both the way the pipe was carved and the quality of the snow—has given riders fits.
The forecast for Rosa Khutor over the next few days may improve, at least according to snow-forecast.com, which tracks the temperature and conditions of mountain resorts. Currently, the conditions for the next two or three days will be in the mid-40s during the day with a freezing level of more than 8,500 feet.
On Sunday, in time for the men's super-G, the temperature and the freezing level should drop to more optimal conditions for racers. Hopefully, by the time the slalom events are held near the close of the Games, the course will resemble more of a world-class racecourse and less a bowl of cold soup.
Many people were surprised when athletes from countries such as Bermuda came into the opening ceremonies wearing shorts, but it turns out that attire has been far more appropriate in the Olympic Village than the traditional winter parka most countries were wearing.
In fact, not only are many athletes wearing shorts all day, but some of them are wearing decidedly less, with competitors tweeting and Instagramming every tank top or shirtless picture they can.
Expect the trend to continue. According to climate.gov, the Sochi Olympics are the warmest in Winter Games history, which may have as much to do with the location—the decision to have a winter competition in a waterfront resort environment always seemed a bit peculiar—as it does with global warming in general.
This trend toward relatively warm Winter Olympic Games locations may be unsustainable as concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases continue to rise. The 5th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in 2013, concluded that under most greenhouse gas emission scenarios, the average global surface temperature is likely to rise by 2°C by the end of the 21st century. Warming of this magnitude will cause a further decrease in Northern Hemisphere snow cover, likely eliminating many potential host locations that were climatically suitable in the past.
They could host the darn thing in my backyard right now, that's for sure. Heck, they could almost host the thing anywhere in America, and it would be colder than Sochi.
Per Accuweather.com, Friday's high in Atlanta—which has hosted the Olympics in summer—is 55 degrees with a low of 31.
Salt Lake City, which hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 2002, has a high of 58 degrees. Yes, it's warmer in Salt Lake City than in Atlanta today, but it's still colder than in Sochi.
On the plus side, if the global warming trend continues, the Sochi Olympics have given the International Olympic Committee all the proof it needs that future host cities can hold the Winter Games…without any winter.