Updated: Aug 27, 2021
Did you know that heat stress linked to climate change is likely to cause 38,000 extra deaths a year worldwide between 2030 and 2050? This finding by the World Health Organisation was widely reported, highlighting that heat stress worsens existing health problems and provokes heat stroke and exhaustion. As we have seen from the Tokyo Olympics, heat stress is a major concern for athletes. Wet weather, wildfires and poor air quality have also led to severe repercussions for the sporting fraternity, such as fainting players and cancelled races. In addition, the U.S. National Park Service estimates 80 rockfalls events happen every year at Yosemite due to warming temperatures, and an unstable climate could cause even more rockfalls locally and worldwide.
In this article, we examine the effects of climate change on sports in a global context, how this can spur climate action in the international sporting scene and ponder the future of climbing on a hotter planet.
The Physical Impacts of Extreme Heat
According to an article by the Climate Reality Project, extreme heat is a major health hazard as it disrupts the body’s thermoregulation. And can also cause muscle cramps, profuse perspiration, thirst and fatigue. In addition, when athletes continue to perform under extreme heat conditions, they could feel chills, affecting their nervous system, resulting in impaired coordination and decision-making.
In January 2018, cricket fans witnessed England's Captain Joe Root being taken to hospital to be treated for severe dehydration during the fifth Ashes Test between England and Australia in Sydney. On that day, the temperature reached 57°C (134°F). Since then, extreme heat has led to the cancellation of cricket games in Australia, and cricket has adopted an "extreme heat policy" that gives umpires the ability to halt games due to extreme heat.
More recently, world tennis Number One Novak Djokovic called for tennis matches to be pushed later into the day at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 due to the sweltering conditions. He said, "I don't understand why they don't start matches at, say, 3 pm," and added, "You feel you have weights on your shoulders because there's so much heat and humidity and stagnated air."
The conditions in Tokyo were arguably the worst in Olympic history, with many athletes agreeing that this was the toughest they have ever experienced. For example, Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva fainted due to the intense heat during her qualifying competition. The extreme heat unsurprisingly became one of the biggest talking points at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
The Effects of Wet Weather and Rising Sea Levels
Wet weather and heavy downpours can cause pitches, arenas and fields that host sporting events to be flooded and unplayable. According to a 2018 study by the Climate Coalition, a British campaign group, golf, cricket, and soccer are also suffering from wetter weather linked to climate change. Around the world, sporting events are affected by floods caused by extreme wet weather and games delayed due to lightning strikes.
American Football venues are predicted to be heavily impacted by rising sea levels. Florida is already seeing the effects of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, leaving stadiums such as the Miami Dolphin's Hard Rock Stadium, where they have already had to cancel games due to climate impacts, particularly vulnerable.
In basketball, the Miami Heat team plays at the American Airlines Arena, located on the edge of Biscayne Bay. According to climate change academics: "The Arena will begin to flood with only two feet of sea-level rise. I'm talking 20 years or less."
However, this disruption has created an opportunity for the sports industry to send powerful messages about the importance of going green. In 2018, the New York Yankees appointed Allen Hershkowitz as their Environmental Science Advisor (the only known such position in sport so far). Hershkowitz was co-founder of the Commissioner's Initiative on Sustainable Ballpark Operations way back in 2005, which encouraged all Major League Baseball teams to adopt more sustainable practices. Every other professional sports league in the U.S. and others around the world then followed suit. Hershkowitz recognised years ago that "environmental constraints, economic constraints caused by environmental issues are going to increasingly affect the economics and the operations of sporting events".
The fight that global stadiums and sporting venues face from the effects of climate change will go on indefinitely.
The Effects of Wildfires and Poor Air Quality
Scientists have observed a trend where there is an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models, as shown by the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of extreme weather events. The renowned climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State commented: "As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted."
Wildfires are a cause for concern as poor air quality can decrease lung function and reduce blood flow. High-performance athletes are considered more vulnerable given the increased volumes of air they inhale when training and competing.
In 2018, wildfire smoke from a massive wildfire in California, the Camp Fire, caused the Berkeley Half Marathon and a series of other running events to be cancelled because of unhealthy air quality levels. In July 2019, it was reported that Alaska's Mount Marathon (Junior) Race was cancelled due to smoke from the lightning-caused Swan Lake Fire. The organisers offered senior runners the option of deferring to next year's race.
The professional ultrarunner, Clare Gallagher, notes that as wildfires increase in size and frequency, more and more races are being cancelled and this, more than any other challenge she has faced, is a threat to her professional career. "Megafires are becoming more common. Races are getting cancelled at a much higher rate than in the past," Gallagher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "As a professional runner, it's crazy. Those were the only two races I had on my calendar in those winter months, and it basically knocked my racing schedule to zero," she said.
The latest IPCC report states that it is an "established fact" that there is a link between human-caused warming and increasingly severe extreme weather events. It is clear that as the planet continues to heat up, outdoor sports will increasingly face greater challenges as climate change brings ever more erratic weather patterns, greater fire risks and other threats.
Being Vocal to Save the Future of Sporting
Niclas Svenningsen, head of the Climate Neutral Now initiative of the U.N. Climate Secretariat, is confident that sport's global appeal could be a way to drive more urgency for action on climate change. The experience in the U.S., beginning with Major League Baseball and spreading out to other major sports, backs this up, suggesting that the sports industry could become one of the most vocal and effective in tackling climate issues. This sends a useful and powerful message because "while very few people follow climate science, the vast majority of Americans follow sports".
"Sports ... has a very big potential to be part of the solution" both by cutting its own emissions and creating demand to deal with climate threats, Svenningsen said.
The U.N. secretariat launched its Sports for Climate Action initiative in December 2018 to support sporting groups and actors to achieve global climate change goals. Over 250 bodies have now signed up, and the International Olympic Committee supports the initiative.
When the Olympic Games were last held in Tokyo in 1964, they were pushed back to the autumn to avoid high temperatures. Fast forward to 2021, the marathon and race-walking events were moved to the cooler city of Sapporo, while a range of other measures, including mist-spraying stations for Olympic horses and cooling vests for referees, were employed to help reduce the risks to athletes.
If climate mitigation measures are not taken in a timely fashion, a study has shown that by 2050, less than half of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to host the games again.
"You can essentially kiss winter sports goodbye in the not-too-distant future. You can basically only have winter sports in high-altitude alpine regions for a very limited period of time in the year," Svenningsen said.
Impacts for the Climbing Community
The impacts of climate change, whether through extreme heat, extreme weather events, wildfires or air pollution, will pose risks to climbers in exactly the same way they pose risks to any other kind of athlete who competes and trains outdoors. The outdoor venues of climbers will also be negatively impacted, with increased rock falls as well as the devastating impacts of melting glaciers. For climbers, increased sweating due to extreme heat can also directly impact grip, negating the effect of hard-earned calluses. The temperature and humidity of the air can also affect how much friction a climber has on the holds. This is true for both indoor climbing (on plastic) and outdoor climbing (on rock). Higher and more humid temperatures make plastic holds more difficult to grip, reducing climbing performance and causing more falls.
As temperatures continue to rise, climbers and other athletes look for solutions to help. This includes training in high heat and humidity conditions to acclimatise, and as we saw at the Olympics, using liquid chalk to prevent slips and preparing frozen water bottles, cooling packs, and ice vests to prevent heat stress.
Research suggests that by 2085 most cities could be too hot for the summer Olympics as a result of climate change. In addition, extreme heat and unpredictable weather may combine to drive more sports, including climbing, to be just indoors.
The climbing community must join in the action being taken by other sporting communities, being vocal on the need to fight climate change. The following few articles in this series will explore how gyms, outdoor crags, and individuals in the climbing community are taking action and being vocal about climate change.