Will Sochi be the last Winter Olympics? Has the Earth run out of snow? Readers on the east coast may find this essay from The Atlantic’s Ian Freidman a little ironic today, but he warned just as the snowstorm hit the entire East Coast that global warming was making the Winter Olympics potentially extinct, and that Sochi proves his point:

One of the warmest Winter Olympics in history is getting warmer.

Temperatures reached the low-60s today in Sochi, and they’re expected to stay there on Thursday and Friday. For some perspective, the weather in the coastal resort is now roughly as warm as it was during certaindays of London’s Summer Games in 2012. According to Forecast.io, the average temperature for the Sochi Olympics so far has been 45 degrees Fahrenheit, three degrees lower than the average during the previous Warmest Winter Olympics Ever: the 2010 Vancouver Games. But Sochi’s highs have been higher than Vancouver’s. And Vancouver’s daily average never rose above 50 degrees, while Sochi’s has surpassed that level several times.

All this creates issues. Like mush, which the American snowboarder Shaun White cursedshortly before failing to medal in the relatively cool mountains outside Sochi. Organizers are now compensating for the lack of hard snow with awintery mix of chemicals, water injections, andstrategic snow reserves. Hundreds of snow cannons stand ready in case of emergency.

This week, however, over 100 Olympians, 85 of them American, blamed more than warm weather for the poor conditions. The real culprit, the athletes said in a statement, is climate change—and world leaders better do something about it during climate talks in Paris next year. “Snow conditions are becoming much more inconsistent, weather patterns more erratic, and what was once a topic for discussion is now reality and fact,” U.S. cross-country skier Andrew Newell wrote. “Our climate is changing and we are losing our winters.”

First, let’s start with the inherent assumption that Sochi was a reasonable venue for a Winter Olympics in the first place. It wasn’t, and its selection by the IOC raised eyebrows at the time for this very reason. Russia had to promise that they could keep the slopes snowy in order to win the bid, and so far that’s not been an easy task. While many think Russia is all about snowy winters, especially for those who know the history of large armies marching on Moscow, it might help to see a map of Sochi’s location:

sochi-map

That’s Sochi — at nearly the southernmost part of Russia, on the Black Sea. It’s not Siberia or even Moscow, and it’s not even close. The driving distance between Sochi and Moscow is more than a thousand miles, slightly longer than the distance between Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. It’s roughly the same latitude as southern France, and well below the latitude of London, which Friedman uses as a comparison.

As a quick piece of research demonstrates, the temperatures noted by Friedman for this Olympiad are in fact the average temperature for Sochi at this time of year. The February average for Sochi is 42.8 degrees, and the average daily high is 49, with a low of 37. That’s a pretty poor choice for a Winter Olympics venue that has to rely on a lot of snow sticking to the ground, let alone falling at all. Even London is colder than Sochi on average (41.5 degrees, hi/lo 46.9/36.1). For that matter, so is the 2010 Winter Olympics venue, Vancouver (40.8 degrees, 46.7/34.8), which as Friedman notes was another head-scratching choice by the IOC.

So yes, if the IOC insists on picking warmer-weather sites for its Winter Olympics, then the games will have trouble with snow. Perhaps they should consider the actual climate of their potential sites before picking them in the future. Given that the IOC selected this site, in a region where violent unrest and terrorism are rampant, I’m not too confident that they’ll make better decisions on any basis in the future.

Update: Just for fun, let’s look at the weather conditions today at the last few venues of the Winter Olympics:

  • Vancouver (2010): Hi/lo 47/38, raining (average 46.7/34.8)
  • Turin, Italy (2006): Hi/lo 46/37, raining (average 47.1/30)
  • Salt Lake City, US (2002): Hi/lo 49/39, raining (average 43.2/25.2)
  • Nagano, Japan (1998, using Izuhara): Hi/lo 45/35, windy (average 48/33)
  • Lillehammer, Norway (1994): Hi/lo 34/32, snowing (average 26/18)
  • Albertville, France (1992, using Bourg-Saint-Maurice): Hi/lo 46/32, snowing (average 45.1/26.1)

Basically, all of these venues are sticking close to their averages, with Lillehammer the only one skewing warmer by any significance — and it’s still going to snow tonight in Lillehammer.

Also, I forgot to hat-tip John Ekdahl at Ace for the story.