The Sochi Olympics’ Snow Problem

Yesterday marked the one-year mark until the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the country’s major opportunity to show its modern self to the world. Only one problem: snow, or not enough of it. Exactly 365 days before the games begin, the temperature in Sochi yesterday barely topped freezing. Earlier this week, it was reportedly as high as 60˚F (15.5˚C).

In some ways, that’s normal. Sochi has a humid subtropical climate with warm temperatures that generally hover just about 32˚ to 42˚F (0 to 6˚C). Usually, there’s considerable snow in the Western Caucasus behind Sochi. But when the country’s Olympics officials led a group of journalists to tour the unfinished Olympic facilities this week, skiers and snowboards were coming off the slopes soaked, wearing raincoats.

Winter Olympic host cities have had weather issues in the past. Vancouver and Torino also had athletes and organizers biting their nails about sufficient high-quality snow. Certainly, there are ways of procuring it if it doesn’t arrive naturally—namely, trucking it in from elsewhere and spraying hillsides with ionized water during cold nights. But those measures are expensive and logistically difficult, the equivalent of a large construction project being built overnight. The whole scenario speaks to the dangerous game of trying to forecast the weather years in advance. Add in a changing climate and more extreme weather over all seasons and future hosts of the games seem to be setting themselves up to be highly embarrassed, welcoming the world’s athletes while scrambling feverishly to keep hillsides white. Already putting that best face forward, Dmitry Chernyshenko, the president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, made an ambitious promise back in December. “Snow in February in Sochi,” he said, “is guaranteed.”

Changing Planet