2010 Winter Olympics Climate Conundrum

On the eve of the Olympics, Reuters reports that Cypress Mountain, home of the 2010 Olympic snowboarding and freestyle skiing events had to close to the public two weeks earlier than anticipated due to poor snow conditions.  The Salt Lake Tribune reports that organizers of the Vancouver Olympics are using trucks and helicopters to bring snow from stockpiles the resort made at higher elevations for just such a scenario. Are the Vancouver Olympics a casualty of climate change?

While some people may immediately jump to that conclusion, it’s worth taking a minute to search for other answers.  The warm temperatures that have plagued British Columbia recently may in part be attributed to a phenomena familiar to Peruvian fishermen for centuries: El Nino. The term El Nino was first used by fishermen to describe a warm ocean current off the coast of Peru around Christmas. In Spanish El Nino means Christ Child.  Get the connection?

Over the years, scientific studies showed that the warm current doesn’t just appear off the coast of Peru, but extends in the shape of a tongue into the Central Pacific. Climatologists use the term El Nino to describe events where this tongue of warm water forms for an extended period and affects more than fishing conditions.

Sometimes El Nino is also referred to as El Nino-Southern Oscillation, or more simply ENSO, because of its link to a change in sea surface pressure in the Southern Pacific.  Generally, El Nino occurs at intervals of three to seven years.  Now you can impress your friends at cocktail parties with your knowledge of El Niño history.

Research has linked ENSO to a variety of impacts.  The map above shows some of them.  Among them is a large swath of warmer than average weather from Alaska through Montana, with British Columbia smack in the middle. There’s also a La Nina phase, where water is colder than normal, in case you were wondering.

So mystery solved, the Vancouver Olympics are in danger because of El Nino, right?  It’s not exactly that easy.  A common phrase heard in the scientific community is “correlation does not equal causation.”  In other words, El Nino conditions don’t automatically equal wildflowers on the slalom course.  For example, during the most recent El Nino episode in 2002-03, temperatures averaged 2.20°C above normal in British Columbia.  In contrast, during the 1950-51 El Nino, temperatures were 2.04°C below average.  On the whole, temperatures will most likely be warmer in British Columbia during an El Nino, but there are other factors that contribute to natural variability.

Is there a concrete answer about why it’s been so warm in British Columbia then?  Not necessarily.  Our climate system is a lot more complex than we sometimes give it credit for.  This might seem like an unsatisfying answer, especially in a media environment that values definitive, bold statements, even if they’re loosely supported by facts.

But it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of the climate system and the uncertainties of climate science up front.  It will help the public better use forecast information.   It also takes a club away from climate change skeptics who have used it to advocate for inaction.

Lastly, even if El Nino frequency isn’t going to increase due to climate change (though there is some evidence it might), examining how we adapt to current variability and use forecasts could provide key insights into how to adapt to climate change in the pipeline.

Photo Credit: Flickr