Updated: Mar 16, 2022
The Beijing Winter Olympics are currently underway, the Chinese City seemingly had everything in place ready to host the games, except of course natural snow. Between January and March this year, the National Alpine Ski Centre in Yanqing, about 55 miles north-west of Beijing, had just 2cm of snow. London, Paris, and Madrid all recorded greater snowfalls, according to data. China will therefore rely on fake snow made from water and ice cannons in order to cater for the games mostly involving snow sports. Fake snow is used at ski resorts across the world so why is this a problem?
The process of making such an industrial scale of fake snow is extremely water intensive, questions have been raised over the sustainability of the games due to this. The water cannons will also require large amounts of energy to process the fake snow, China have declared that the Beijing Winter Olympics will be ran completely on green energy, however. Despite this promise, campaigners and scientists have made the point that China is a country ran nearly entirely by coal and over fossil fuels so can these games really be that sustainable?
Reports suggest that Beijing will require an estimated 49 million gallons of water to create the sheer amount of artificial snow required for the events. This is not the first winter Olympics to require this seemingly avoidable situation, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 also used fake snow which the BBC reported used enough water to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool every hour. What is particularly concerning about the Beijing games however is the fact that the city is described as a water-stressed city, with many of its inhabitants struggling to access water or at least access a suitable amount. According to a 2017 water quality report, just under 40% of Beijing’s water supply is too polluted for use. Rapid population growth is meaning the demand for the scarce supply of water is increasing dramatically year on year. How then, can it be acceptable for a city this water deprived to host the games which require such vast amounts of water to run? Beijing’s 21 million inhabitants are allocated 185 cubic meters of water per year, this is less than a fifth of the supply needed per United Nations standards.
The amounts of water used for the fake snow is not the only concern, the production, use and eventual waste of the product can cause a variety of environmental issues. Artificially placing vast amounts of snow into an area which would not usually have any can lead to land erosion and changes in soil composition. The artificial snow melt can contain different minerals and nutrients to regular snow melt or water, changing the composition of the soil can lead to a change in plant growth, upsetting the natural biodiversity of the area. Plants with higher nutritional requirements can become dominant, pushing out other varieties which wildlife in the area may rely on for their own nutrition. To enhance the artificial snow’s quality chemicals or biological additives may be added to the water, thus polluting the land it settles on. Snow hardeners such as fertilisers and salt are often used to improve the quality of artificial snow environments used for sports such as skiing. There are also concerns that the snow machines pose the risk of noise pollution and disrupting the nearby wildlife.
It is clear that hosting a sports tournament which so heavily relies on snow in a place where snow is abundant is a bad idea, it is costly both financially and ecologically. As temperatures rise fewer and fewer places around the world will be suitable locations to host such games. February daytime temperatures of Olympic Winter Games host cities have been increasing steadily from an average of 0.4°C in the 1920s-50s, to 3.1°C during the 60s-90s and 6.3°C in the 21st century. The last Games in Sochi saw temperatures as high as 16°C. The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and all previous Winter Olympics with similar situations should act as a stark warning of where the planet is heading if we do not combat climate change.