Winter Olympics Weather in Context

Edit (2/24/14):

With the end of the Winter Games in Sochi, we can now say that Sochi was the warmest host city on record. The average temperature during the Olympics was 48.9 degrees, besting the previous warmest host city of Vancouver (44.8°F) by four degrees.

Previous Entry:

First off, disclaimer: This is not something I’m trying to view in the context of a larger debate about climate change. I’m not trying to spin this in any particular way. This was done out of curiosity given the fact that so many discussions have ensued trying to tie the weather of the Winter Olympics to climate change. So the curious side of me wanted to dig in on the actual weather.

Starting in 1952 (weather data prior to 1950 is spotty), I’ve plotted the Olympic host city, their 1981-2010 climatology, the actual average temperatures recorded during those Olympics, as well as the start date of the games. Click it to enlarge:


The IOC chose Olympic sites with an average temperature below freezing until Innsbruck in 1964. The average temperature during those games was almost 4 degrees below normal, so no big issues. The IOC took a big step in 1968, hosting the games in Grenoble, France, which averages 38.7°F (based on 81-10 climatology). While I was unable to find actual weather statistics, I did read some anecdotal articles that suggested there were weather related problems, including a reduction in luge runs and issues with bobsled runs. Part of that may have been engineering related, moreso than weather related. Temperatures during the games did average 1-3°F above normal according to NOAA period average maps. The ’76 Olympics in Innsbruck had weather issues as well, as the average for the games was near climatology — or above freezing. The 1984 games in Sarajevo had issues of their own, related to cold and stormy weather, as temperatures averaged about 11 degrees below normal. I discuss the 1988 Calgary problems below. In Albertville in 1992, mild weather in a climatologically mild place (second warmest location since 1952 at the time to host a games) caused problems. Lillehammer was the highest latitude location to host a games, and coupled with cold weather in 1994, warmth wasn’t an issue.

Since 1994, every Olympic host city has had warmer climatology than the previous host city. With the exception of Salt Lake City in 2002, each year’s weather has been slightly warmer than the previous year (almost walking in step with climatology). Turin in 2006 was almost as warm, climatologically, as the previous warmest host city (Grenoble). Vancouver stepped above that in 2010, and it was also actually warmer, thanks in part to boosted nighttime low temps (daytime highs were only +1 relative to normal, while nights, critical for snowmaking, were +4.5 relative to normal). 2010 was also an El Niño year, typically a bit warmer on the west coast. And now, Sochi is here to take things to the next level in 2014.

The actual recorded temperatures at the Olympics this year in Sochi will easily be the warmest in history The current forecast + actual temps at Adler, Russia (about 18 miles southeast of Sochi on the coast) would be 48.9°F, obliterating the previous record set at the previous Olympics in Vancouver of 44.8°F. This year’s weather issues at the winter games probably fall under the category of bad luck. The 30 year climatology of Sochi is the warmest of any host city in history — and they’re under the influence of a slightly above normal area of high pressure. See the map below from NOAA showing the Feb 7-Feb 15 500 mb height (approximately 20,000 feet above the surface) anomalies. When 500 mb heights like this are above normal, that typically translates to warmer than normal weather. Through Feb 15th, the anomaly at Sochi was roughly 5.7 degrees above normal. This would expand to about 6.3° above normal if the forecast holds through Sunday.

500mb Height Anomalies Feb 7-15, 2014, via NOAA ESRL
Sochi approximately near red “X”

Sochi won’t take the honor for warmest Olympics relative to normal. That goes to Calgary in 1988, which finished the games 11.3°F above normal (including a couple days in the 60s). That year also saw “bad luck” for the Olympics with a semi-persistent +PNA ridge over the Western part of North America.

500mb Height Anomalies During 1988 Calgary Olympics, via NOAA ESRL

So have the Winter Olympics warmed? I suppose that depends on what definition you want to use. In the sense that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has awarded the last three consecutive games to three of the four climatologically warmest sites in Winter Olympics history, then yes, they’ve warmed, and certainly in recent years, the actual temperatures have warmed too. Should this be a surprise? Maybe, maybe not. The anomalies relative to normal haven’t been terribly impressive in recent years, but if the Sochi forecast verifies that will change a bit.

So, no matter how you slice it, the Olympics have warmed in recent years. The good news? In 2018, the Olympics will be held in the climatologically coldest city since 1994 in Lillehammer: Pyeongchang in South Korea averages 26.7°F in February. We’ll see what happens then.

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