Climate Change and Sports
As the world warms, one often overlooked issue is climate change’s influence on sports and recreation. While not as life-threatening as extreme weather or as costly as droughts, the impact on sports is something that’s becoming increasingly common. Athletes are uniquely aware of the connection between health and performance, and how conditions impact health. Players win when they push their bodies to the limit, which makes them more susceptible to changing environments. Below is a sample of impacted sports, though there are more examples, such as skiing (including cross-country), surfing, hunting, and baseball.
Cold Weather Sports
Cold weather sports add at least $12 billion to the US economy annually, employing more than 200,000 people. There is now a rapidly growing movement among professional winter sports athletes and ski industry professionals to speak out about the risks of global warming. U.S. Cross Country Skiing Olympian Andrew Newell has started the Athletes for Action campaign to elevate climate change solutions, and has collected the signatures of over 100 prominent winter sports athletes. The National Ski Areas Association has created the Climate Challenge program, dedicated to helping ski areas reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency. Last year, 75 Olympic medallists in skiing and snowboarding sent a letter to President Obama urging him to take stronger action on mitigating climate change and promoting clean energy.
Warming conditions in turn are impacting the cost of winter sports. Russia spent $50 billion on the Sochi Games, making them the most expensive Olympics ever, with an unreported portion of that cost going toward making and preserving hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of artificial snow. In the U.S., ski resorts are commonly spending 50 percent or more of their annual energy budget on snowmaking.
Alaska had of one of its mildest winters on record in 2016. February 29 was the first February day in recorded history without snow in Anchorage, during what is usually the snowiest time of the year. It is so warm that Alaskan officials hauled in rail cars full of snow for the opening ceremony of the state’s iconic Iditarod dog sled race. The race route through Anchorage was also shortened from 11 miles to just three. In total, Anchorage has received only 7.9 inches of snow since December 1, when it normally receives at least 60 inches.
Due to the warmth and lack of snow, the Iditarod was forced to change course in 2015, moving the starting line 225 miles north. This is only the second time in the race’s history that the route has been changed, the other being 2003 for the same reason- not enough snow. Anchorage experienced no days below zero in 2014, the first time ever since temperature monitoring began.
Ice hockey, particularly when played outdoors, is at risk of becoming an endangered sport. Recent reports are warning of the end of outdoor rinks in Canada, where average temperatures rose 4.5°F between 1951 and 2005. In that time period, many areas of Canada saw a 20 percent decrease in the outdoor hockey season. One particularly emblematic rink has seen a five day decrease in playable days per decade between 1972 and 2013, with 58 playable days in that period, falling to 28 days by 2090.
A recent study shows that by mid-century, almost half of the past Winter Olympics host cities would likely be too warm for outdoor Alpine sports. By the end of the century, only six of the 19 previous Winter Olympics cities would be cold enough.
The temperature in Sochi, Russia – host of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games – reached 61°F, making it feel more like the Summer Games. The warm weather was above normal for Sochi, whose average February temperature is around 50°F. The poor snow conditions caused delays, injuries and athlete complaints on many Olympic events like the men’s snowboard halfpipe competition, the women’s ski jump and men’s downhill.
This is the latest instance in a growing trend of warmer weather for the Winter Olympics since at least the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. The trend is due partly to Olympic organizers selecting warmer cities for the Winter Games in recent years, but is also impacted by climate change. Among all the cities that have hosted the Winter Games since their inception in 1924, Sochi’s alpine area lies well in the average ranges for latitude (43°N) and altitude (7,000 feet above sea level). This suggests that the threat of warmer conditions will continue to impact the Winter Games.
These findings are consistent with evidence that the effects of climate change have increased average surface temperatures around the world and shortened winter seasons. New England, for example, now has over 22 fewer days of ice cover on its lakes than it did 50 years ago.
Warm Weather Sports
The Climate Institute released a report on the threat of climate change to sports in Australia. One particularly compelling example is the Australian Open, which revised its heat policy for 2015, setting an upward limit on ambient temperatures in which athletes can play after 2014’s extreme heat became a serious health issue, causing hallucinations, vomiting and fainting. Before passing out in the “inhumane” 108°F heat, Frank Dancevic saw Snoopy on the court. Chinese player Peng Shuai vomited before cramping up. One player’s shoes melted, as did another’s water bottle and Jelena Jankovic burned her bottom on an uncovered seat.
In the 2015 US Open, athletes competed in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees with 40 percent humidity during the first round, leading to a record 10 retirements due mostly to heat stress. The US Open is the latest in a series of US athletic events that have faced unusual and dangerous climate conditions. While US Open competitor Roger Federer said, “heat really shouldn’t matter,” John Isner responded, “It’s not a fitness thing...that’s a big, big misconception.”
If you look at the science, Isner is right. In very dry conditions, humans can be physically active outdoors in temperatures of up to 104°F, but in humid conditions, the cutoff drops below 86°F because it is harder for the body to cool itself through sweating and evaporation. When the combination of heat and humidity becomes too high, continued exposure to heat leads to heat illness. As climate change drives temperatures higher and makes heat waves more frequent, we can expect to see more risks to athletes, from professionals to high schoolers.
Football players are particularly at risk to heat due to their warm and heavy padding. This means that players cannot practice during the hottest part of the day, and sometimes have to practice without full padding. One study found that in high school football players, deaths from heat tripled between 1994 and 2009 compared to the previous 15 years. Droughts, like the one in Texas in 2011, make it difficult and expensive to maintain the grass fields.
Fly fishing will change as streams warm to the point where fish species can no longer thrive. In Wisconsin, just a 1.8°F increase in stream temperatures will reduce brook trout range by 78 percent and a 5.4°F increase would reduce its range by 98 percent, practically eliminating it from the region. The brook trout is expected to see a 77 percent decline in habitat nationally by 2080. Water temperatures in the Great Lakes have increased by 5°F in the past 30 years.
Golf is another sport that is extremely vulnerable to changing weather patterns. In 2013, high temperatures and drought made some of the greens at the British Open Championship virtually unplayable. In July 2016, historic flooding in West Virginia engulfed an entire course, which forced the Professional Golfers’ Association’s Greenbrier Classic tournament to be cancelled. Nutrients are washed away with heavy rain and more areas will be susceptible to erosion, especially near the coast. More than a thousand golf courses in the United States are considered “coastal.” Based on the Golf Digest’s research by Longitudes Group, out of 1,168 courses less than two meters above sea level, more than half are vulnerable to disappearance by the end of this century. Presidential nominee Donald Trump is designing a sea wall to protect one of his golf courses.
Golf courses are already adapting to the changing climate. Drainage systems are redesigned for more efficient or even recycled water use. Genetic diversity in turf grass will make fields more resilient. On the other hand, one study found that as early as the 2020s, the average golf season could be one to seven weeks longer and the annual round played could increase by 5.5 to 37.1 percent.
Heat can have an especially dramatic impact on long-distance running events. Marathon times are typically 2 minutes slower for every 10°F the temperature rises.
The Los Angeles Marathon is traditionally run on the third weekend in March but, last year, when temperatures hit a race-record 90°F, nearly 200 runners needed medical attention, and more than 30 were hospitalized. The event was moved to February for the first time in 2016, when athletes could qualify for the Summer Olympic games, but temperatures were still more than 20°F above average.
The 2012 Boston Marathon was a sweltering 89°F, just one degree short of the all-time high. Winning times were nearly 10 minutes slower than the previous year, when race day was a balmy 57°F. The starting time for the race was changed to earlier in the day in 2006 in an attempt to beat the heat.
NYC’s 2012 marathon was cancelled due to Superstorm Sandy.