Olympic Athletes Say Climate Change Affecting Winter Sports

Apr 29, 2014

From left to right: Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, Hannah Dreissigacker, Susan DunkleeCredit Annie Mackin/National Wildlife FederationEdit | Remove

Four of Vermont’s winter Olympic athletes are speaking out on the impact on climate change sports and the need for global policies to stem the threat.

Temperatures during the Sochi Olympics spiked into the 60's, forcing organizers to truck in snow and postpone events. While the city is on Russia’s southern coast and has warmer winters than the interior, the spring-like conditions raised the specter of climate change and its impact on winter sports.

Sochi Olympic nordic skiers Liz Stephen and Ida Sargent and biathletes Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker are back in their home state of Vermont.  They visited the Morse Farm in Montpelier on Monday, a popular Nordic ski area in winter and maple sugarhouse in spring. But over the past two decades, its owner has seen more extreme and unpredictable weather. The athletes say they can see the same thing happening as they compete across the globe and attribute it to climate change.  Biathlete Hannah Dreissigacker  says most places she raced on the World Cup circuit this year were forced to use man-made snow.  "The climate of most of Europe is changing. There’s all these places in Europe that you go that you know are traditionally winter sport areas. You see the old ski posters that have people skiing all winter in towns where there was always snow. They would never be winter sport areas now. They are because people have put so much money and time into keeping it going. But soon enough they’re going to lose that winter sport tradition just because it’s not feasible any more."

Dreissigacker describes resorts trucking in and making snow for the trails.  "It doesn’t feel like cross country skiing anymore when you’re skiing around a little loop that’s maybe 2 km long, and that’s all you can ski on. That’s really sad. It’s really changing the sport."  

Vermont Natural Resources Council Energy Program Director Johanna Miller says climate change is a personal issue for the athletes because their competitive careers are at stake.  "All of them spoke to fact that there’s significantly more man-made snow. They painted some pictures about skiing on a narrow strip of man-made snow, oftentimes, dark and brown and muddy, because there’s not enough natural snow falling anymore. Sometimes it’s been so warm they can’t make snow. So they’ve seen dramatic differences. They also suggested that they are likely to see very few places at the end of this century for any winter games to take place."

Dreissigacker, an engineering student at Dartmouth College, believes a carbon tax must be implemented immediately to begin to stem the impacts of climate change.  "Noone really likes to talk about adding a tax. But I really think that a carbon tax is the best solution to this problem. Because if you have a carbon tax, we’ll just slowly shift away from carbon if it costs more, and we’ll shift to new, better solutions."
The VNRC’s Johanna Miller says they are working with the Olympians to build awareness and urgency around climate change and motivate action. Miller says the implications to Vermont include the maple sugaring, ski and tourism industries.  "We have seen studies that say that Vermont’s landscape is going to look more like that of Virginia in fifty years or less. And that means no more of our lovely maples and hardwoods that define our fall foliage industry. Things could change dramatically unless we take significant action now. The solutions are also an opportunity to grow a clean energy industry that’s not only good for people’s pocketbooks but  good for the planet."

The Vermont Public Service Department is undertaking an energy study to review policy and technology initiatives to meet the state’s 90 percent by 2050 renewable energy goal.