The recent fall of the Italian skier Sofia Goggia, who fractured the tibia and tibial malleolus of her right leg during training in Ponte di Legno, in the province of Brescia, was cited by several commentators as an example of increasingly frequent injuries among professional skiers. Part of the responsibility for the falls is attributed by the commentators themselves to heterogeneous causes, but which in most cases have to do with the direct and indirect effects of climate change: effects which have already been the subject of extensive scrutiny for years. debate on the future of winter sports.
In the weeks and months before Goggia’s injury, several other high-level male and female athletes had injured themselves, including the Norwegian skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, winner of the Alpine Skiing World Cup in 2020, the super-G in 2022 and downhill in 2022 and 2023. In January Kilde was fallen during the World Cup downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, and had suffered a dislocated shoulder and a deep cut to the calf of his right leg, from which he had lost a lot of blood. In the previous super-giant race in Wengen it was fallen the Frenchman Alexis Pinturault, breaking the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee.
Injuries had generated several controversies, linked to the decision of the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) to have a race previously missed in Beaver Creek, Colorado, due to a storm, held on the same weekend in Wengen – one of the most challenging events of the World Cup. «Alexander [Kilde] he is the strongest athlete of all, and he fell just before the finish line. Three days in a row on the longest and most complicated course on the circuit is too much”, said the French skier Cyprien Sarrazin, who came second in the downhill race.
At the end of January, the American Mikaela Shiffrin, the most successful skier in the history of the Alpine Skiing World Cup and one of the strongest ever, also fell in the World Cup downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo. Shiffrin, who then had to miss the other races, he wrote Thursday that “the number of injuries, especially among top athletes, has been staggering this year.” Like his other colleagues, he attributed the injuries to tiredness due to the “too busy” competition schedule.
Shiffrin, also Kilde’s girlfriend, was in 2023 – together with the Italian Federica Brignone, Kilde himself and other athletes – among the main signatories of a letter addressed to the FIS to urge a greater commitment from the Federation in planning the interventions necessary to guarantee the environmental sustainability of winter sports. The letter cited as reasons for the growing concerns on the part of male and female athletes the frequent cancellation of competitions due to lack of snow, the reduction of training opportunities before competitions, since “the glaciers are retreating at a frightening speed”, and the inability to produce artificial snow due to rising temperatures.
Among the other proposals suggested in the letter by the 142 signatory athletes, members of the association Protect Our Winters (POW), there was a request to move the start of the World Cup season from late October to late November and the end from mid-March to late April. “The seasons have changed, and in the interests of all of us we must adapt to these new circumstances,” the letter read. The athletes had also asked the FIS to make the competition program more “geographically reasonable”, i.e. by structuring it in such a way as to reduce emissions as much as possible and avoid traveling from Europe to North America several times and vice versa during the the same season.
In a recent item on theAtlantic English writer and former professional skater Talia Barrington has described climate change as one of the main factors that has made winter sports more challenging and dangerous than ever in recent years. Another, in the United States, is the increasing crowding of ski resorts by people – even those with little or no experience – willing to wait 45 minutes for a chairlift that, four years ago, would have required a three-minute queue, Barrington wrote. And this has led expert skiers to increasingly move away from the busiest areas, where any rescue interventions in the event of accidents would be more timely and safe.
In general, due to climate change, the conditions of environments suitable for practicing winter sports have become less predictable. According to the story widely shared among experts, Barrington wrote, until five years ago more or less throughout the northern hemisphere the ski season began around the second half of November. A few early storms around that time caused a gradual accumulation of ice and snow cover as temperatures dropped. And even on days when the weather didn’t allow for skiing, you were relatively sure that that type of snow and ice surface would remain available in the following days.
“Now everyone I talk to, from Iceland to the alpine areas of California, says the first storms don’t arrive until January,” Barrington wrote. Furthermore, it is no longer possible to make forecasts with the degree of certainty of the past: record-breaking snowstorms alternate with unusual winter rains that melt the snow. It is a more frequent condition today than in the past, because when average winter temperatures increase, rain falls in the mountains at heights where snow normally falls, he said a Wired hydrometeorologist Ty Brandt (hydrometeorology is the branch of meteorology that studies hydrological cycles such as precipitation, evaporation and interactions between underground and surface water).
Cases of “rain on snow” occur more often in early winter and early spring, Brandt added, explaining how this phenomenon increases the risk of avalanches, among other things. In some conditions, rain penetrates through the upper layers of the snowpack and can freeze and cause avalanches, although it is not easy to establish when and how this happens. In Colorado a total of 5,813 avalanches it swept over 122 people and killed 11 — the second-highest number of avalanche deaths since 1951, the year they began being recorded in the state.
Winters are getting shorter, drier and warmer, he told Wired mountaineer, climatologist and former meteorologist Dale Atkins, one of the most senior experts on the Colorado mountain rescue team. But at the same time, storms and other extreme events have become much more frequent and geographically widespread: a condition which, in addition to upsetting the plans of skiers and skiers, greatly complicates the execution of rescues. It’s not unusual for a single snowstorm to cause accumulation of three feet or more, Atkins said, but it’s decidedly atypical — though increasingly common — for “storms to affect entire mountain ranges or large areas of the state.”
While it is not difficult to predict storms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict their effects on the area where they occur. “A forecast that might be right for a mountain range may be wrong for a specific mountain peak or valley,” Atkins said. These storms mean that it is not just skiers and climbers who need help, but often entire communities cut off by snow or floods. “The problem with climate change is that we are moving into a period where the past will not necessarily reflect the present or the future,” Brandt said.
The unpredictability of events also affects athletes’ training and competitions, and can in some cases also heavily influence the results. Piero Valesio he wrote on the daily newspaper Tomorrow that in the current season we have gone in the space of a few weeks from «classically winter snow conditions like in December to humid conditions like those of Schladming, where you go on the slopes at night, up to the para-summer conditions of early February, seen in the women’s giant slalom in San Vigilio di Marebbe and in the men’s slalom in Chamonix.”
Precisely in the men’s slalom in Chamonix, where the temperature at one point exceeded ten degrees, the Swiss Daniel Yule – last in the first heat – managed to set a record winning after starting first in the second heat. He found the slope to be in better condition than all the skiers who came down after him, who struggled just to try not to fall.