The Cost of A Winter Olympics in Beijing

by Michael Sheen

What You Can Do

Since the 1980s, the Winter Olympics have produced and utilized artificial snow for their games. On the surface, real and artificial snow are almost indistinguishable. However, at the microscopic level, real snow creates a natural crystalline structure while processed snow is more dense and confines much less air. For sporting events, competitions prefer to use artificial snow as it maintains a consistent quality and has an stronger structure which is beneficial for some events [1]. From a strictly performance standpoint, winter sports should use artificial snow for their competitions. 

A problem arises when considering the environmental impact of using artificial snow, especially for large-scale, global events such as the Winter Olympics. When evaluating possible locations to hold the games, the International Olympics Committee was initially hesitant to host Beijing since their “reliance on artificial snowmaking would require [the] diversion of water from existing reservoirs and may impact other land uses” [2]. The monsoon cycle contributes to a dry winter that produces less than six inches of snow in a year [3]. Despite the area’s lack of natural snow, the International Olympics Committee selected Beijing–the socioeconomic opportunities outweighing the environmental costs. 

The Winter Olympics at Beijing are the first games in its long history to use 100 percent artificial snow [4]. Producing enough snow for the events amounts to more than 100 snow generators and 300 snow cannons, creating a total of 1.2 million cubic meters [5]. The amount of water to supply machine-made snow may come to the detriment of the local community. The nearby streams of water are usually dry from the winter and due to global warming, Beijing has been undergoing droughts and a decrease in drinking water. Besides the large supply of water being used, other impacts of using artificial snow raise concerns to scientists. The chemicals used in snowmaking products contain proteins from bacteria that have unknown effects towards the environment [6]. Additionally, the lowered melting point of machine-made snow raises concerns about how that will impact the water-cycle and local ecosystem and biodiversity. A list of environmental concerns can be formed when considering what it takes to power snowmaking machines throughout the games. 

The Winter Olympics in Beijing have taken some measures to alleviate concerns raised against them by the International Olympics Committee. They made sure to maximize the amount of water recycling and conservation during their games. For instance, Beijing plans to hold games in the colder regions of the area to reduce the reproduction of snow and promised to utilize only a small proportion of water from the local supply [2]. Likewise, the city plans to capture melting snow for irrigation and other uses [1]. 

As global temperatures continue to rise and climate change becomes a more pressing issue, it is crucial that the Winter Olympics, ski resorts, and any entertainment that depends on artificial snow consider its environmental impact. The International Olympics Committee and sporting organizations should be held in areas with natural snowfall and decrease their dependence on machine-made snow. 

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