Image: NASA Goddard

Olympic organizers have made climate change a central theme at the current games—and for good reason. A sobering new study shows that by the 2084 Olympics, rising temperatures will make it practically impossible for most cities to host the summer games.

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In a new commentary published in The Lancet, a team led by Berkeley researchers Kirk Smith and John Balmes warn that the future of the summer Olympics is in jeopardy. Seventy years from now, only eight Northern Hemisphere cities outside of Europe will be cool enough to host the games, with only three cities in North America capable of serving as hosts.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by developing a measurement, called the wet bulb global temperature (WBGT), that combines temperature, humidity, heat radiation, and wind. This tool was used in conjunction with two climate models to assess the viability of future host cities.

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For the analysis, only cities with at least 600,000 residents were considered, which is the minimum size required to host the games. Cities with elevations over a mile above sea level, such as Mexico City, were omitted due to other limiting factors, such their thin, oxygen poor air. The researchers also assumed that any venue with more than a 10 percent chance of having to cancel a marathon—a signature event—on short notice would preclude that city as an Olympic candidate.

“If you’re going to be spending billions of dollars to host an event, you’re going to want have a level of certainty that you’re not going to have to cancel it at the last minute,” explained Smith in a statement.

Using this criteria, the researchers were able to identify only eight out of 543 cities outside of western Europe that would qualify as “low risk” sites, including St. Petersburg in Russia, Riga in Latvia, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Shockingly, only three North American cities made the cut, namely San Francisco, Vancouver, and Calgary. Western Europe provided the greatest number of “low risk” cities at 25. Latin America and Africa failed to produce a single viable city.

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Looking further ahead into the 22nd Century, the researchers predicted that only four Northern Hemisphere cities would be capable of qualifying: Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.

The researchers correctly point out that work-arounds exist, such as running the summer games indoors or eliminating certain events that aren’t suitable for the heat. But that would dramatically alter the complexion and spirit of the games.

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Talk about grim. As time passes, and as the threats of global warming come into focus, it’s clear that virtually every aspect of human existence are going to be affected.

[The Lancet]