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2022 Beijing Games: How real is your snow?

January 28, 2022

The Beijing Organizing Committee has given assurances that snow will not be an issue during, or after, the 2022 Winter Olympics. Experts have told DW otherwise. We take a look at some of the claims.

A snow plough clears snow at the National Alpine Skiing Center in the Yanqing District
There are concerns around the long-term impacts of artificial snow at the 2022 Winter OlympicsImage: HPIC/dpa/picture alliance

A Winter Olympics without snow wouldn't be possible, would it?

The Beijing Organizing Committee has vowed to deliver a sustainable and eco-friendly Olympics, but there are serious environmental concerns about the 2022 Games, in particular its snowmaking.

Multiple reports in the last few months have suggested 49 million gallons of water will be needed to create enough snow for alpine runs.

But Carmen de Jong, professor of Hydrology at the University of Strasbourg, believes that figure is underestimating the true cost.

"Forty-nine million gallons would only be 186,000 cubic meters of water, that is more or less the amount used for making snow for one single ski run but it's way off the real figure — nearly 2 million cubic meters (around 500 million gallons)," de Jong told DW via email.

"To put that into perspective: In the Alps, covering one hectare of ski run by artificial snow requires between 3,000-6,000 cubic meters," de Jong wrote. "For the Beijing venues, the water requirement is 2-3 times higher i.e. more than 10,000 cubic meters of water per hectare. This is because the climate is not appropriate for snowmaking."

The Beijing Organizing Committee (BOC) told DW that its venues had passed checks and earned "high praise from industry experts," adding that "no matter what the snowfall is, snowmaking is required for all the Games' snow sports venues so as to shape the competition courses and ensure that all athletes compete under the same conditions."

The BOC has said the snowmaking "will not impact local water security and environment," citing specific figures for Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, the two areas where most of the snow sports events will be held.

The BOC has said the demand for water in the Yanqing area during the Games will account for 4% of local water resources and just 2.8% of the total water resources in Zhangjiakou's Chongli District, with no impact on water resources security.

And it has claimed that the creation of the Yunzhou Reservoir in Zhangjiakou has diverted over 5,000 cubic meters of water to the Chongli District, reducing groundwater extraction.

But China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based environmental group, believes otherwise.In a 2019 report, it stated that Beijing is an "extremely highly water-stressed" city, and that the local water resource per capita in Zhangjiakou is less than one-fifth of China's national average.

Let it snow

The BOC has backed up its position by pointing to the snowfall in late November 2021, in both Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which reached "blizzard level" conditions and created favorable conditions for reducing water consumption for snowmaking — a claim disputed by de Jong.

"There is nearly no natural snow in the mountain venues (just 2 or 3 cm per month), so the entire Games will be based on 100% artificial snow," said de Jong. "Furthermore, all access roads to the ski runs also have to be covered by artificial snow to enable the Ski-Doos and snow grooms to move."

US skier River Radamus believes that while skiing on fake snow is fine for competition, it's a stark reminder of the reality the world finds itself in and ultimately is not ideal for the sport, either.

"The fact that we are racing on artificial snow, you know, at the Winter Olympics, is another warning sign of what's going on globally and what what our future looks like," Radamus told DW's Living Planet podcast.

"It's snow, we can compete, it'll be fine, but it's not the spirit of the Winter Olympics and it's not something I'd like to see consistently in the future, because there is still plenty of snow out there and I think if we conserve it there will be in the future."

A graphic comparing snowfall/snow days in Yanqing District and three other previous Olympic cities

The Yanqing site struggles with snow conditions due to high wind speeds, as well as dry air and soil. With both venues located in one of China's driest river basins, the Haihe basin, concerns around water scarcity are not new.

Indeed, a 2020 study in science publication Nature warned that groundwater depletion in northern China was a "critical issue" and among the highest globally, due to intensive agricultural irrigation, rapid urbanization and the dry climate.

The environmental questions about these Games stretch beyond snowmaking, with contribution to the destruction of the natural world also a major worry.

The BOC has claimed that environmental impact assessments have been conducted for the competition zones of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, both located in the Songshan Nature Reserve. According to the committee, wildlife has been protected through restrictions on nighttime construction, the establishment of wildlife corridors and the transplantation or protection of plants, where necessary.

"In 2015 Chinese biologists pointed out this problem and suggested the venues would be shifted," said de Jong. But last year, de Jong started comparing maps and Google images and discovered that what had been shifted were the boundaries of the nature reserve, not the venues.

"So the venues have been maintained and 1,100 hectares of nature reserve have been deleted, i.e. 25% of the total area of the nature reserve. The core area has been totally destroyed with ski runs, access roads, helicopter landing places, car parks and roads," said de Jong.

Concerns remain

For all of the BOC's assurances about the green nature of the 2022 Games, doubts remain about how sustainable these Olympics really can and will be. And much of that stems from the issue of snow.

"Many ski runs are perpendicular to the slopes, which is counterproductive to erosion control. In the Yanqing sites I expect major erosion and flooding in the future," said de Jong.

"Erosion will have impacts on the ecosystem, clogging river courses and choking fish. It can also impact water infrastructures, filling up canals and reservoirs. High suspended sediment rates can also influence the quality of drinking water."

The 2022 Games look set to have a significant impact on the areas in which they will be held, long after the snow settles.

Edited by: Rob Mudge