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Monday, August 22, 2016

What're The Prospects of Summer Olympics Vanishing at Century's End?

After crossing the finish line in Rio's scorching heat, Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee were initially too exhausted to celebrate.
After crossing the finish line in Rio's scorching heat, Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee were initially too exhausted to celebrate.  (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)
"You could take a risk, and plan your Olympics, and maybe not get the hot days you expect, but that would be a big risk when there are many billions of dollars at stake."
"It's tricky to measure and tricky to predict, but it'll come to be understood as the best indicator of heat stress on the body [rising humidity levels]."
"At [37 C] and 100 percent humidity, you can walk slowly, outdoors, but if you try to run, you can certainly die. It's a matter of just the basic physics of it."
"I'm trying to think of ways to basically bring the future forward, to get the future in people's eyes today, and this is one."
Kirk Smith, researcher, University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health

"Projections out to the early 22nd Century, which carry even more uncertainty, suggest the last cities in the northern hemisphere with low-risk summer conditions for the Games will be Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow." 
Future Summer Games feasibility study

"A global-mean warming of roughly 7 C would create small zones where metabolic heat dissipation would for the first time become impossible, calling into question their suitability for human habitation."
2010 study excerpt, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

"[Cities in the Persian Gulf region] are likely to experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans owing to the consequences of increasing concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouses gases."
2014 paper excerpt, Nature Climate Change
"It is reasonable to think that this will only become a larger issue in the future. If we commit to such extravagant warming, the health of elite athletes running marathons will be the least of our worries [considering infinitely greater numbers of people ordinarily work outdoors in their various professions]."
Matthew Huber, Purdue University

Athletes compete in the women’s marathon at the Summer Olympics on Aug. 14. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The future for the Olympics may look fairly different than what pertains at the present time. Olympians representing their nations' medal aspirations were challenged in the 2016 Summer Games at Rio; concerns over the crime rate, the threat of Zika virus, and the unsanitary conditions, the pollution on beaches and the ocean where many of the summer events were taking place, all represented unusual conditions to be worked around. And perhaps none were as everpresent as the summer heat in Brazil, sapping energy from athletes requiring all their unimpaired strength and energy to succeed.

What's so different about future such events? Well, for one thing, environmental impact of Climate Change, that's what. Which makes the eventual future choice of venues problematical to say the very least. Fewer major cities, according to a new study just published in the journal the Lancet, will be capable in the future of safely providing an Olympics venue for the Summer Games. By the end of the century, this will present as a real problem.

We can shrug with the realization that very few of us will live to see the end of this century. But of course the very young and their children most certainly will, and they represent our successors. How people will fare, in adapting to changing environmental conditions which will inevitably alter the way we live and how we live will depend on acclimatization only to a degree. There is just so much the human body can tolerate; perhaps the rest will depend heavily on how through science, we will manage to continue to manipulate the environment in our favour.

The study published in the Lancet, of which Mr. Smith was the lead author, focused on the theory of "wet-bulb globe temperature" referring to how temperature, humidity, wind and heat radiation combine; a combination which at elevated levels becomes too onerous to be borne by the human body. If it's too humid, a struggle ensues as our bodies attempt to cool through evaporation through our sweat glands. And this happens at even relatively mild temperatures. High wet-bulb temperatures paired with ordinary heat become intolerable for humans.

High humidity linked with 24 C heat becomes a menacing danger zone for people engaging in heavy physical activity, whether it's work-related or leisure-time sport-related, let alone for professional-grade athletes competing at world sport venues. The study set out to calculate how frequently an unbearable wet-bulb global temperature might occur in northern hemisphere cities sufficiently large to host the Summer Olympics by the year 2085, on the assumption that global warming continues.

On the assumption that a ten percent chance of extreme conditions would prevent the Olympics from proceeding, since it would be unacceptable to spend hugely on the event, then be forced to cancel a important outdoor event due to weather, things do not look promising for the future. If it is assumed that a 26 C wet-bulb (in shade) temperature prevailed as a tolerable limit, only eight Northern Hemisphere cities outside Western Europe would represent a low risk for hosting the Games by the year 2085. Two in Canada are Calgary and Vancouver.
The coach of Poland's Olympic handball team wipes sweat from his face. (Ben Curtis/AP)

Reto Knutti, a climate researcher at ETH Zurich responsible for publishing some papers himself on the dangers of human heat stress resulting from climate change, agrees with the paper's conclusions: "I'm confident that the analysis is solid and the results make sense", he stated, adding the research did not go so far as to imply extreme warming would put an end to the Olympics, only that the Games might be channelled differently in the future.

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