Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini, AFP, Getty Images
Published February 12, 2010
The Vancouver 2010 games will be the warmest Winter Olympics yet, at least within city limits, experts say. And that may actually be good news for Olympians.
Already the warmest city ever to host the Winter Olympic Games, Vancouver in February 2010 is going to be even balmier than usual, experts say.
The Pacific Northwest Canadian city (Vancouver map)—which will host the games from today through February 28, 2010—just experienced its warmest January since record keeping began in 1937. Temperatures averaged 44.8 degrees Fahrenheit (7.1 degrees Celsius), considerably warmer than the average of 37.9 degrees Fahrenheit (3.3 degrees Celsius). Average February temperatures for Winter Olympic host cities are typically below freezing.
(Related: Vancouver must-dos for travelers.)
At first glance the culprit behind the city’s balmy winter weather appears to be the current El Niño, a game changer in worldwide weather patterns that occurs every two to seven years. During an El Niño event—such as the current one, which began in summer 2009—the Pacific Ocean warms up near equatorial South America and disrupts large-scale atmospheric circulation.
"Once El Niño starts, Vancouver typically gets warmer and slightly drier weather," said William Hsieh, an atmospheric scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
El Niño usually peaks in the tropical Pacific Ocean in December and January, but it takes about a month for El Niño waters to travel north to Vancouver's latitude. "So our peak El Niño effect is around February,” he said—just in time for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.
Even so, Hsieh said, "This is not a particularly big El Niño, whereas it's a record [warm] January." Hsieh said.
The discrepancy may in part be explained by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (or PDO) an apparent North Pacific temperature cycle. Since about 1900 the PDO has resulted in 20 or 30 years of cooler temperatures followed by 20 or 30 years of warmer temperatures for Vancouver and other western North American cities.
In recent years, though, the PDO has been fairly erratic, with fairly short cool and warm periods. The phenomenon had a cooling effect on Vancouver starting around late 2007, but last summer that effect disappeared quite rapidly.
"It sort of appeared to have faded and no one knows why," Hsieh said. And just as the PDO's cooling effect sputtered, in stepped El Niño. "That really stacked the deck against us," he said.
(Related: "Spring Coming Earlier, Study Says.")
But the warmer weather for the Vancouver 2010 games may not put a damper on the 2,000-plus Olympic athletes' quests for gold—snowfall has been plentiful at some Olympic ski venues, and the warmth may actually improve performance, experts say.
Vancouver 2010 Snow: Good News, Bad News
Outdoor events for the Vancouver 2010 games will take place at several venues around Vancouver and Whistler Blackcomb, an alpine resort town about 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Vancouver. (Test your Vancouver knowledge.)
Thanks to higher altitudes and mountainous surroundings, Whistler Blackcomb and Callaghan Valley—the main outdoor venues for the games—haven't been as affected by El Niño, and have seen good snowfall rates. In fact Whistler Blackcomb has enjoyed record snowfall in winter 2009-2010, boasting 32 feet (9.9 meters) of the white stuff.
Not so at Cypress Mountain on Vancouver's north shore, which will host the 2010 Olympics' snowboard and freestyle skiing events. Cypress usually sees about 98 inches (250 centimeters) of snow during February and March, but this winter's warmer coastal temperatures have plagued the resort with a snow drought.
To compensate, the resort is trucking in natural snow from a park just shy of the Canadian Rockies, since Vancouver is so warm right now that on-site snow machines can't meet the demand alone.
Warm Temps and Vancouver 2010 Venues, Gear
To cope with the expected warmer, wetter snow—which means more friction, and therefore slower speeds—skiers and snowboarders athletes will turn to specially formulated ski waxes and finishes.
At the Vancouver 2010 games, for example, the home team will be trying out a brand-new, top-secret, water-repellent base. Christo Stamboulides, a chemical engineer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, found a chemical additive that—when mixed with the plastic base of a snowboard or ski during manufacturing—makes the gear perform better in warm and wet snow.
So far the base is available only to Canadian Olympians and so hasn't been widely tested, but, Stamboulides said, "I know that for our athletes this is the best they have used, and they're very happy with it."
Regardless of the difficulties in creating the perfect Olympic conditions for Vancouver 2010, the risk—and charm—of the games is dealing with the uncertainty of competing outdoors, said Carl Foster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse.
In events such as alpine skiing or snowboarding, one competition may last two to three hours—enough time for the conditions of the course to change dramatically.
"The big issue is competition fairness and how consistent conditions stay during the day," Foster said.
For example, during the speed skating competition at the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, conditions on the race track shifted as the sun moved along the rink. The incident prompted speed skating competitions to be brought indoors at future Olympics, where temperature can be more closely controlled.
Improved Performance at Vancouver 2010?
In general, the less exposure to extreme cold, the better physical performance you can expect from an athlete, said Matt White, an environmental physiologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
"What's happening in the cold is their muscle strength or performance decreases dramatically as [the muscle] cools," White said.
(Find out how the Vancouver 2010 Olympics is spurring "gene doping" warnings.)
Manual dexterity—key in events such as the biathlon, during which competitors shoot at targets—also decreases, as anyone who's had to tie shoelaces in the bitter cold knows.
"Those are the kinds of impediments that would be removed if they were competing in warmer temperatures.
"I would expect that performance would improve," he added, "so you might see some pretty close races."
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