When the winter Olympics kicked off virtually snowless last week, the record heat was due not only to El Niño, said Tim Gayda, vice president of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, but to “something else that nobody understands at this point."
Though his hesitation to mention climate change raised eyebrows, pointing fingers at the cause doesn’t matter as much as how this snow slump is being dealt with. If what scientists are saying is true—that the 30 remaining glaciers at Glacier National Park and diminishing snow cover in Colorado and Utah are likely to be gone soon—this winter Games may be a dress rehearsal for warmer and wetter events to come.
The Vancouver Olympics have shown us that we can adapt to warmer and more erratic weather events, but there are caveats.
Some resiliency is built in—for example, snowmaking machines can pipe in water, then freeze and spray it around. But only up to a point. Even with the best technology, snowmaking works only when temperatures are well under freezing, the air is dry, and there is a solid base of snow. And even then, it makes only a coat. So scaling up efforts to make snow is only possible within a narrow band, meaning that planning is difficult if climate change runs away uncontrolled, making adaptation and mitigation tightly linked.
Another big challenge with adapting to variability and change is the incremental cost, which can be high and steepen quickly. The most advanced snowmaking machines cost upward of US$30,000 each just to install, and it takes 250 of them to blanket even a small peak like Vermont’s Mt. Snow. When snowmaking proved insufficient at the Olympics, equipment-moving Sikorsky S-64 helicopters were brought in to carry snow from higher-elevation mountains. Those machines are extraordinarily expensive to operate, and few and far between. Compare that to snow falling from the sky for free. The upshot? It’s much cheaper to prevent climate change than to try to “cure” it.
In the end, companies must plan to adapt to climate change to some extent because, at this point, some climate change is inevitable. But our currently programmed responses can be resource- and pollution-intensive, leading to a vicious cycle. Snowmaking can take 160,000 gallons of water to make just a foot of snow for one acre. And the impacts of flying in extra snow are just as high: My own back-of-the-napkin calculation shows that the helicopters used for snow rescue in Vancouver emit 100 pounds of carbon-dioxide per mile (assuming a 4,992-liter fuel capacity, 370-kilometer range, and aviation gasoline with an emissions coefficient of 18.355 pounds of carbon-dioxide per gallon).
In summary, the Vancouver Olympics show us that businesses will—and has already begun to—build more resiliency into planning, strategies, and overall expectations about climate variability and climate-led environmental change. But as we do, it is important to keep in mind that adaptation can exert more strain on the global climate system. And perhaps it makes more sense to prioritize and demand responsible, sustainability-supportive solutions.