Climate Change, the Olympics and Solastalgia

I’ve always enjoyed watching the Olympics, but there’s something a little off about the experience this time around. The athletes this year are as impressive as ever, but seeing all the wintery weather of Pyeongchang on my TV has me wishing for more snow here in the Sierra Nevada. While a few inches of snow have accumulated this week and hopes for a “Miracle March” are strong, it’s not nearly enough to create a solid and stable snowpack, which measured at only 27% of normal on February 1st. The state is experiencing another drought, though admittedly the current conditions are less extreme than in the 2015-2016 cycle, and forecasting shows future droughts intensifying. The atmospheric conditions that helped create the recent drought in California have returned – a ridge of high-pressure air off the coast has blocked many Pacific storms from reaching California, and the storms that have brought precipitation have been weakened by this ridge. Modeling research shows that climate change has exacerbated droughts in California as weather patterns triggered by global warming block rainfall from reaching the state. For the Sierra, this has resulted as thin snowpack, unseasonably high levels of rain, and many warm days with temperatures far above historical averages.

Olympics SouthKoreaThis exceptionally warm and dry winter, along with the lack of snowpack, is concerning to both state officials and snow-sport enthusiasts alike. Personally, I worry because I know what the consequences of a dry winter mean for the Sierra, and for California as a whole. I feel a certain amount of anxiety when I look out the window and see brown dirt instead of piles of snow, or when I have yet to wear my winter coat because of the warmer temperatures, and I relate this kind of distress to the word solastalgia. I first encountered the word “solastalgia” when I was studying Sustainability at Murdoch University in Western Australia, where my professor Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher, coined the neologism. Solastalgia describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as climate change, or the experience of negative effects of environmental change that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.

While watching recent coverage of the Olympics I found a bit of relief from my solastalgia as a number of Olympians spoke out for climate change action.  Winter Olympians have good reason to be concerned with climate change and global warming, and it seems they are engaging more by using their public platform to advocate for mitigation and adaptation. Research shows that nine previous Winter Games host locations will be too hot to handle the Games, and three former venues may also lack sufficient natural snow in the future. Even though on a warmer planet, certain regions will still have cold places, the number of possible Winter Olympics locations will decline, and this is something Olympians are seriously considering, both from a professional and environmental perspective.

Saving winter is something I believe in. And I don’t want my kids to grow up in a world where they’ve never experienced snow because we weren’t responsible enough.” – Jessie Diggins, cross-country skier on American women’s team competing in Pyeongchang 

I’m very active with Protect our Winters (POW). It’s an athlete-led community that fights against climate change. We start the conversation about what individuals can do with young people in schools and at ski resorts. It’s cool. That gives me hope for the future.” – Maddie Bowman, freestyle skier on American women’s team competing in Pyeongchang 

As a 26-year-old, I’ve got many more years to keep adventuring around this beautiful Earth, which I definitely plan to do. But, what will our planet look like in the future? From receding snowpack to raging wildfires, the places we play are being destroyed by the impacts of climate change… When you love the outdoors as much as I do, you have to fight to protect it.” – Jaime Anderson, snowboarder on American women’s team competing in Pyeongchang 

Global warming is wreaking havoc on skiing – it’s unbelievable how many race cancellations there have been due to mild temperatures. If this trend continues, many of the slopes we love could be bare in the near future and scientists agree that man-made carbon emissions will be the cause.” – Julia Mancuso, Olympic Champion ski racer, NBC commentator for Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics 

While winter is shrinking and solastalgia is growing, the voices of the Winter Olympics are bringing a new level of enthusiasm and momentum to climate action. Their call to action is inspirational and reminds me that we all have a role in catalyzing efforts for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and that can even take place on a local level here in the Sierra. If you share the same sentiments, consider becoming a member of Sierra CAMP and help our region shoulder the burden of climate change impacts.