China has provided plenty of snow for the Winter Olympics, but at what cost to the environment?

The 2022 Olympics in Beijing are coming to an end this weekend, but the construction and use of artificial snow in alpine and mountain sports competitions in Zhangjiakou and Yanqing could cause long-term changes in the ecosystems of the districts.

Before the best winter athletes of the world took part in the courses, dozens of cars of the Italian company TechnoAlpin covered the competition areas with artificial snow. The games relied almost entirely on artificial snow firmer and denser than its natural counterpart.

Most skiing and snowboarding competitions at the Games, including freestyle, cross-country and ski jumping, are held staged in the field in Zhangjiakou, a mountainous area about 110 miles northwest of Beijing. Competitions in alpine skiing, bobsleigh and tobogganing are held conducted in Yanqing, another mountainous region, about 45 miles from the Chinese capital.

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics has outlined its efforts to preserve the topsoil, protect vegetation and minimize animal habitat disturbances. Sustainability Report before the Beijing Games. But experts in hydrology and soil have expressed concern about whether there will be enough proposed conservation and restoration efforts to prevent damage to soil, plants and animals.

“Its natural state is likely to take several hundred years to return to its original status,” said Carmen de Jong, a professor of hydrology at the University of Strasbourg, on the impact of larger construction projects, such as ski runs, on the regions. ‘Wednesday. “So either the impact will be irreversible or it will be very strong.”

A spokesman for Beijing’s organizing committee could not be reached for comment, despite numerous inquiries.

Strain of water supply

The two arid regions selected as venues lack the natural snow needed to host the Olympics. December-February are some of the driest months for Beijing and surrounding areas, with an average of little rainfall in January, according to World Meteorological Agency.

While Beijing is not the first host of the Winter Olympics to use artificial snow in competition areas, the city is the first to use exclusively artificial snow.

Areas also lack water to produce the amount of artificial snow needed for the Games, which led Chinese Olympic organizers to draw water from reservoirs using tens of miles of pipes. Beijing has diverted water from the Balebao Reservoir into the Guisha River – usually a dry riverbed in the winter – according to state newspaper.

The water needed to make artificial snow for the Games has allegedly strained local water supplies, although Beijing and state media have said insisted otherwise. The most recent data found that Beijing has about 36,000 gallons of fresh water per capita, while Zhangjiakou had 83,000 gallons per capita. The threshold for the country to be considered water scarcity provides less than 260,000 gallons of fresh water per person.

But the production of artificial snow affects not only Beijing’s water supply.

Impact on soil, plants

Artificial snow alters soil insulation and can raise soil temperature, according to an article by de Jong in the Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers. The use of snowdrifts to smooth the snow surface enhances these effects.

“The combination of this very dense, hard artificial snow and the snow that compresses and treats them is that there is usually not enough oxygen between the soil and the snow, and then the soil itself also becomes very compressed and impermeable,” de Jong said. .

The construction staff of the Olympic venues cleaned, stored and reused the seed-rich topsoil in Yangqing’s environmental restoration projects, according to a report by the Beijing Organizing Committee on Sustainability. The committee wrote that “restoration has been successfully achieved”, but did not specify the importance of successful recovery.

Decreased soil’s ability to leak liquids can impede water infiltration and increase surface runoff, contributing to erosion.

“There will probably be a lot of problems with erosion,” de Jong said. “So where they took away trees and vegetation that have been replaced by ski slopes that now go vertically to the slopes … that means these areas are concentrating water, they are concentrating sediments that will cause erosion. Once erosion has begun, it is very difficult to stop. ”

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And changes in soil have a drastic effect on plant life.

“The snow business itself … pretty much disrupts vegetation,” said Noah Molotch, an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who specializes in surface water and snow hydrology.

Milk said artificial snow affects water distribution and soil temperature. This, in turn, affects “soil performance, in part due to the availability of water, but also because these cycles affect nutrient availability because soil temperature and water affect nutrient availability”.

Changes in the availability of water, energy and nutrients could affect the distribution of plants in the landscape, he said. Changes in soil formed by snow can also affect the period of plant growth in the region.

“Because of the over-compacted snow cover, the duration of snow can last an average of two weeks,” said Sila Hudek, a senior fellow at the Lancaster Center for the Environment at Lancaster University. “This will reduce the growing season of plants, which reduces the number of early flowering plants and promotes late species, shortening the period for seed propagation.”

After the Olympics, the Yangqing Zone will offer year-round tourism with the opportunity to engage in winter sports, according to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. website. The Zhangjiak area, which includes the existing commercial ski resort, will continue to operate as a sports and training facility.

But as global temperatures rise, demand for artificial snow production could increase the burden on local water supplies as climate change affects the nature of precipitation.

Continued commercial use transforms the natural areas designed for the Games into what Hammer calls a more “managed landscape” where there is significant human intervention in the structure of the landscape and the plants and animals that grow or live in the area.

“Making snow and putting snow in such an environment,” said Molotch, “it doesn’t necessarily sound like something environmentally destructive, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a profound environmental impact.” China has provided plenty of snow for the Winter Olympics, but at what cost to the environment?

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