Winter’s Howl from Sochi

Winter’s Howl from Sochi: Hot. Cool. Yours.

Is there a wolf of Sochi? If last week’s comedic viral video prank was any indication, one answer might be “maybe.” On Jimmy Kimmel Live that aired last last Friday night on February 21, he introduced a video clip allegedly taken by US Olympic Luger Kate Hansen from her Olympic Village dorm in Sochi. In the short 17-second clip, the hand-held video taken from inside a dorm room features what is described as a wolf casually walking through the quiet hallway. Kimmel explained “If you’ve been paying attention to the news in Sochi, you probably have heard about all of the stray dogs over there. There are packs of dogs roaming the streets. They have even been spotted in the hotels.” Continuing, he added, “So last night Kate Hansen who is a member of the U.S. Luge team posted a video using her Twitter and YouTube accounts of what appeared to be a wolf wandering the hallway of her dorm.”

The video was an immediate viral sensation on social media, and was propelled further by bewildering and amusing news reports proclaiming about the “Wolf of Sochi” and cause for worry about Olympic athlete safety and security. Kimmel said that the video almost immediately “caught fire” and nearly every news and sports web site soon had a story about it, adding that even reported on it, “in case you needed your four-day wolf forecast.” A montage of televised news reaction to the video appeared on Kimmel’s show, and with a sleight of hand, he revealed how Hansen’s Olympic Village dorm in Sochi was recreated in fifteen hours at his Hollywood studio to produce the short clip. A wolf handler was contacted to bring in an American timberwolf to fit the starring bill. Once the clip was finished, it was handed off to Hansen and a viral video was born.

Although the video offered a bit of mischievous fun to recent news from the Winter Olympics and generated a rumor-worthy meme, a different version of the “Wolf of Sochi” does exist. The real wolf at the door is climate change and its impact on winter and winter sports. In the past few weeks, Olympic news coverage not only captured the dramatic highs and lows of the sports programs, but the rise and fall of outside temperatures as well. To the surprise of many not familiar with Sochi, known fondly by many Russians as the “summer capital,” the city boasts a mild-to-tropical weather pattern throughout the year. In a brief report from Slate, “Sochi was head-and-shoulders the warmest Winter Olympics since at least 1950” culled from weather analyis provided by American meteorologist Matt Lanza (“It’s Official: Sochi Was the Warmest Winter Olympics Ever” by Eric Holthaus, Slate, February 24, 2014). Lanza remarked that “The average temperature during the Olympics was 48.9 degrees, besting the previous warmest host city of Vancouver (44.8°F) by four degrees.”

In recent weeks throughout February, reporters have quipped that they’re covering the Spring Olympics given the moderate and balmy temperatures along the Black Sea Coast. As the sun soared over mostly blue skies during the day, many participating athletes, volunteers and visitors stripped down to the waist for sunbathing on the beach near Olympic venues, even up in the mountains at ski and snowboarding venues near Rosa Khutor.

Clearly, the mild weather has lent the Winter Olympics an upbeat buoyancy for outdoor sports like the biathlon and cross-country skiing, alpine downhill and slope-style events. Weather forecasts for sunny, warm weather during the games did not dovetail well for the Winter Olympics causing some events to be canceled and vexing for others with a combination of slush, wet snow and ice. The crisp snowcapped peaks of the Krasnaya Polyana Mountains against the cobalt blue skies looked inviting and impressive from television coverage in photos, but climate change foretells a concern for the future of winter sports.

Porter Fox, a writer and editor for Powder Magazine, considers this issue in his recently published book “DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow,” a book he helped crowdfund through Kickstarter. For Fox, the impact of climate change is a serious one that could see the end of skiing in 75 years. In the United States, the acceleration of winter warming has tripled since 1970, and could see the closure of at least half of the Northeast’s ski areas. Additionally, Fox was surprised to learn from his research that one billion people around the world depend on water from snowmelt.

Earlier this month, Fox contributed the article “The End of Snow?” for the New York Times (February 7, 2014) drawing upon the focus of his book in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. On the subject of Olympic broadcasts from the mountain cluster and the illusion of snowpack, Fox writes, “What viewers might not see is the 16 million cubic feet of snow that was stored under blankets last year to make sure that those slopes remained white, or the hundreds of snow-making guns that have been running around the clock to keep them that way.”

Ski areas on the U.S. West Coast and in the Mountain West are not faring much better. Accompanying the essay, Bill Marsh provided an infographic (“Postcards From Milder Winters, Recent and Future”) that partitions a map of the continental United States with details related to climate change and diminishing precipitation for snowpack. The trend for the West Coast is increasing rainfall incurring a drop of snow depth between 25 – 100 percent. In the Mountain West, pins on the map indicate that Colorado’s Aspen Mountain could have its ski areas reduced to the top quarter of the slope, and Park City, Utah, could lose all of its snowpack by century’s end.

The impact of climate change on winter sports is one that is also taken seriously by professional athletes who are elevating awareness around this issue. US Ski Team member 2014 Olympian Andrew Newell, 105 international Olympians and Protect Our Winters have published a Call for Climate Action in advance of the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in 2015. In the announcement, Newell stresses the following: “The urgency of this letter is not to be taken lightly since time is definitely something we do not have on our side. This year alone, nearly half of the FIS cross country World Cup international competitions have taken place on artificial snow. Even last year in Sochi, several pre Olympic skiing and snowboarding events had to be canceled because of poor conditions, something that has been a consistent problem both in Central Europe and Scandinavia. Snow conditions are becoming much more inconsistent, weather patterns more erratic, and what was once a topic for discussion is now reality and fact. Our climate is changing and we are losing our winters.” (An Olympian’s Call for Climate Action by Andrew Newell, US Ski Team 2014, Protect Our Winters).

Concurring, Science Writer Gretel Ehrlich who has studied climate change and its connection to the “deseasonization of winter” considered this idea drawing inspiration for her book “The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold” (2005). From her introduction, she writes, “The continental ice caps, glaciers, and frozen seas of the far north where I’d spent so many years loomed in my mind because they were now melting at unprecedented rates. By midcentury, it is predicted, there will be no more glaciers and a million species of living beings will become extinct. The end of winter might mean the end of life. What is the future of winter, of snow, of ice?”

Now that the 2014 Winter Olympics have sunsetted earlier this week, it’s clear that President Vladimir Putin has earned his Olympic gold for hosting the games in Sochi. For the first time ever, Sochi now offers a world-class ski destination thanks to construction investments for ski lifts and new facilities as well as infrastructural planning for the Winter Olympics. Participants and visitors enjoyed the spectacle despite a few wrinkles including a snowflake lighting malfunction for the deployment of the five Olympic rings at the Opening Ceremony which has become commemorated as an ad hoc symbol of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Rumors of terror threats, a witch-hunt for the elusive “black widow” bombers, security concerns and unfinished guest accommodations have all abated while the athletic competitions have held their moment under the flickering Olympic Torch against the coastal Black Sea sky.

Looking ahead towards the next Winter Olympics set for Pyeonchang, South Korea in 2018, what’s next for winter sports in the face of climate change? The International Olympic Committee has a greater concern before it with winter weather trending warmer.

Image credits: Peter Penz and Georg Fischler of Austria make a run during the Men’s Luge Doubles on Day 5 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Sliding Center Sanki on February 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images); Opening Ceremony for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium, February 7, 2014: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports; A stray dog crosses the road outside the Olympic Park Sunday. February 2, 2014, in Sochi, Russia, Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images; Drops of water sit along the edge of the pool at the Olympic cauldron as the sun sets at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David Goldman); Topping up the tan: A volunteer enjoys a sunbath before the Men’s Cross-Country Skiing 15km Classic at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics today (AFP / Getty Images).

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