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High winds and bitter cold - #Pyeongchang Winter Olympic snow and ice
Blog by Jo Farrow
11th February 2018 22:43

High winds and bitter cold - #Pyeongchang Winter Olympic snow and ice

The Opening Ceremony has taken place in bitterly cold winds, with some competitors missing the event to protect their bodies from the cold and others glad of the specially heated jackets which form part of their nations official costume. Winter sports by their very nature rely on snow and ice but it is the raw winds causing concern in PyeongChang. This part of South Korea is a cold location for its latitude, with Siberian winds often sweeping down from the north. Climate Change has brought new challenges to choosing a host region; will there be enough quality snow, never mind the wealth and infrastructure to create the stadiums, venues and Olympic Village. 

Once the Games are taking place, there can be new heavy snowfall, interfering with tracks, jumps and courses and greatly reducing visibility. Fog can also bring visibility issues and affect safety. High winds will cancel the jumping and actually mild conditions have interrupted the events as well. It seems quite difficult to get it all 'right on the night'.

Location

Creating an Olympic host venue is hard enough, summer or winter. The amount of money needed, political sensitivities, time zone issues, infrastructure and worries about disease and safety. Added onto that, are the weather conditions for the Winter Olympics; too mild, too windy, not enough snow, too much snow, too cold, visibility, it's not easy. Gangwon province is in central eastern Korea, with the curling, hockey and ice centre on the east coast at Gangneung. Temperatures are around +2 to -9C on Sunday with light winds and fine weather. The outdoor events take place inland at the mountain resort of PyeongChang. The various Alpine sports, the snow park and the Olympic stadium seen on the Opening Ceremony. Here it is colder, down to -15C on Sunday and has been down to -24C in the past few days and the wind chill is a worrying factor.

With Climate Change, resorts are changing, lower level areas aren't getting the same snow. Artificial snow is being used and Sochi 2014 was really mild at times. Pyeongchang is cold for its latitude, with cold airflow from eastern Russia, perhaps too cold.  Sochi had the warmest climate of any Winter Games host city, this will be a real change for return competitors. 

Competitors

A handful of competitors chose not to brave the bitter cold at the Opening Ceremony on Friday, not wanting to stress their bodies at the outdoor event. A handful of spectators were treated for hypothermia. Andrew Musgrove, born in Dorset but lived and trains in Huntly, Aberdeenshire decided that the Opening Ceremony would not be ideal preparation for his Cross Country Skiing events. Cross-country skiing only gets postponed when the air temperature is -20C, not including wind chill. 

The slender ski jumpers have been shivering, waiting for the wind conditions to ease on Saturday, a green light to go ahead and jump, or just a slight upwind leading to the gloomy red light. Then they have to wait at the side or wrapped up in a blanket high up the jump. In extreme cold weather, the body takes longer to warm up and the athletes' bodies will burn more energy. A bit like the peloton in road cycling or geese flying in V formation, drafting is a skiing strategy to get through windy weather by travelling in a pack, or right beside another competitor to avoid the worst bitter wind. 



The equipment also suffers. Practice sessions took their toll on skis with the cold rendering pairs useless (at Olympic level) after one venture outside and down the slopes. "Snow crystals get really sharp when temperatures go to -20 degrees and the (ski) base burns." 

Fresh snow also causes issues, like dry or wet conditions for F1 motor racing. Cold, new snow is different to ski on from wet, slushy snow. Pyeongchang is actually quite a dry place; it doesn't snow that often, so a change in weather conditions is quite unlikely due to snowfall. The wind is another matter.

Events

The blue ribbon event, the men's downhill skiing was postponed on Sunday due to high winds. The Ladies cross country skiing took place on Saturday with beautifully groomed trails, no fresh snow to interrupt this time. Nor the slushy conditions of Sochi 2014 when some competitors raced in sleeveless tops.
The downhill training run for the men's Alpine Combined was also postponed from Monday to later in the week and other events bumped a day or so later. We've seen the wind corridor delays at the weekend, conditions setup for fairness for the ski jumpers.
Sliding track events, where various contraptions whizz down the ice tunnel are also affected by air conditions. Sliding tracks are refrigerated to keep conditions ideal, around freezing, zero Celsius. Too cold and the track becomes frosty, not as smooth and if humidity rises and that can slow down the race. Most of the tracks are protected from the snow and wind, but snow has been known to blow onto the tracks and slow down the race and affect th steering.  Pyeongchang's cold, sunny conditions should mean fast ice and race excitement

Even the presenters are being affected by the cold with their makeup not able to cope with the cold environment, causing it to crack and freeze, along with problems for some of the technical filming equipment.

 

Previous weather upsets

In 2014 Fog postponed the men's 15km biathlon and the men's snowboarding boarder-cross.

2010, Vancouver- Snow had to be hauled in for the freestyle and snowboarding courses which were near the coast. Warm weather and fog caused postponement of bobsledding/Nordic combined/ski jumping and snowboarding. Heavy snow and fog caused postponements of several Alpine events at Whistler.

2006 Torino /Turin Snow issues, fog and high winds caused postponement of events.

Not weather, but Nagano in Japan had a 5.0 earthquake during the first run of the men's slalom but no damage occurred and the event was not postponed.

Looking back at the history of the Winter Olympics there seems to always have been some interruption for severe weather, high winds, a storm, poor visibility, heavy snow, melting snow, too mild and now really quite cold for Pyeongchang 2018. 

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