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Utah's Olympics prospects amid shrinking snowpack

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With our famed snow and world class ski slopes, Salt Lake City is bidding to host the winter Olympics as early as 2030. But as our snowpack shrinks with drought and rising temperatures, what does the future hold for our prospects as an Olympic host?

While snow sports make up less than half of the events at the winter Olympics, Utah’s snow is a big draw for competitors and fans alike. Yet climate models suggest our snowpack is shrinking faster than ever, putting our perfect powder at risk.

Governor Cox assured reporters at his December news conference that our shrinking snowpack was a manageable concern when it comes to our Olympic prospects.

“A lot of the snow for the Olympics in Beijing, most of that will be manmade…we have the capacity to do that here, to be able to supplement and to make snow if necessary, and so we will continue to watch that,” Cox said.

McKenzie Skiles, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah, said with Utah’s tall peaks, it’s unlikely our snow will disappear in the near future. That’s good news for downhill skiing and other high elevation snow sports, but Olympic events at lower elevations may suffer.

“The snow line is moving up in elevation, and maybe in previous winters, the precipitation would fall as snow, but now it's warmer, so it's falling as rain. You know, if that trend keeps happening, then what becomes most at risk is Nordic skiing or cross-country skiing, because they actually have elevation ranges where they’re allowed to have races as a part of their sport,” Skiles explained.

One of Utah’s allures is the image we’ve cultivated as a world-class winter playground, and as snowpack declines, selling our image as an Olympic destination and for winter tourism in general may become increasingly difficult.

“The image of Salt Lake as a winter destination is powerful in and of itself. If we don't have widespread snow or snowcapped peaks that people are looking at, it doesn't look like the Winter Olympics, and that still could impact tourism, because of the uncertainty of whether or not people are actually going to get good conditions when they get here,” Skiles said.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.