When world-class cross-country skiing meets climate change

Picture a mountain village in Europe, the site of a World Cup cross-country skiing event. A pristine blanket of snow coats trees and rooftops. Spectators cradle cups of hot chocolate in mitten-clad hands, as athletes glide past on a perfectly groomed track.

That's the postcard version, anyway. In the era of climate change, the reality is often less idyllic.

"When it's warm and wet, the snow can be really dirty," said Zak Ketterson, a skier from Bloomington who competes on the World Cup tour. "There are a lot of rocks and dirt and sticks. Sometimes there are ruts on the course where you sink in up to your ankles.

"You go to places where it's supposed to be a winter wonderland, and it's just mud and grass everywhere. Climate change is hard for us to ignore because it's right in our faces."

Organizers of next weekend's Loppet Cup hoped a classic Minnesota winter would greet the first World Cup cross-country races held in the United States since 2001. Instead, they've gotten record warmth and precious little snow, requiring a major effort to keep the courses in good shape for the sprint and 10-kilometer races at Theodore Wirth Park.

That's become a distressingly familiar scenario for people who make their living on ice and snow. Athletes like Ketterson and Olympic champion Jessie Diggins of Afton regularly see the impact of climate change in races affected by poor snow conditions, cancellations and safety issues.

As the problem grows, winter sports organizations are becoming increasingly concerned about their future. The International Olympic Committee said last year that by 2040, only 10 countries will have the climate necessary to host the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The past four Winter Games have had to make artificial snow at venues because there wasn't enough natural snow for competition.

"Preliminary [studies] already show that we need to adapt the Olympic Winter Games, given the impact of climate change," IOC President Thomas Bach said last October. "In collaboration with the winter sports community, we need to look for solutions for the future."

Organizations and individuals that rely on winter are stepping up efforts to protect it. Diggins is among many athletes lobbying for legislation to curb climate change. Venues ranging from World Cup hosts to local ski hills have made sustainability part of their mission, knowing their survival depends on it.

That will be reflected at the Loppet Cup. The Loppet Foundation, which is hosting the races, will hold a "Climate Conversation" panel discussion after Sunday's 10k with environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. Xcel Energy will power the event with wind and solar energy, and electric vehicles and reusable cups will be used.

Claire Wilson, executive director of the Loppet Foundation, said the organization is constantly discussing how to deal with climate change. Like the World Cup athletes, she's getting a close-up view of the fallout.

"When I moved here 20 years ago, you could ski all winter long," Wilson said. "Maybe even a different venue every day because we groomed so many trails in this area. This winter, not one natural snow trail was groomed all winter. It's heartbreaking."

Relying on artificial snow

Ketterson and Diggins said cross-country conditions in Europe have been generally good this season. Still, a Tour de Ski stage race in Toblach, Italy, had to alter its course because of skimpy snow cover in January.

The World Cup tour for Alpine skiing has fared worse, with races in Germany and France canceled because of rain or warm weather. Last season, warmth or low snow caused the cancellation of seven of the first eight World Cup Alpine races. Temperatures topped 50 degrees at last year's Tour de Ski stages in Oberstdorf, Germany.

At Wirth Park, the Loppet Foundation has had to push back the start of its cross-country ski programs from late November into mid-to-late December, and Wilson said the trails are now "completely dependent" on man-made snow.

When Diggins was a kid, she used to build massive snow forts in her yard. By the time she was in high school, she recalled, there were years when her team had to travel to ski on artificial snow.

"I remember being bummed out even then, and kind of worried and concerned," she said. "Now, I'm seeing the impact on the World Cup.

"In order to even bid for a World Cup now, you have to be able to make snow. Even in February, they can't count on natural snow. That's wild to me. But that's really indicative of how much our winters have changed."

In 2022, a team led by Canada's University of Waterloo studied climate change in 21 previous host cities for the Winter Olympics. It projected that, without a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases, only one — Sapporo, Japan — would be able to hold fair and safe competition in Olympic snow sports by the end of this century. If the benchmarks of the Paris Climate Agreement were achieved, eight cities would have the proper climate.

Ketterson said some historic World Cup venues are "throwing in the towel," dropping their races because of unreliable conditions. Events are moving to higher altitudes to increase the chances of having quality snow.

The hazards of warm-weather racing go beyond event cancellations and venue shifts. At the 2014 Sochi Games, Diggins raced in a tank top, without a hat or gloves, and still became dehydrated and overheated.

Man-made snow tends to be icier, which can cause more falls — and more injuries, because athletes are landing on a harder surface. In warm, wet conditions, proper ski selection and waxing become trickier, making equipment a significant factor in the outcome.

"[Bad snow] can be less safe," Ketterson said. "It becomes really hard to balance because you're sinking in so deep. And we've had some World Cups where there was so much trash in the snow that a pair of skis gets destroyed just by one race."

Athletes turned advocates

Climate change has economic implications, too. Wilson said the Loppet Foundation will take "a big hit" financially this year, with its outdoor recreation programs diminished by the lack of snow.

Given the growing unpredictability of Minnesota's winters, the foundation is adjusting its financial model, adding more activities that aren't dependent upon the weather.

"We're looking to incorporate more nature-based programming and things like yoga," Wilson said. "If the amount of time on snow is only going to be a month or two per year, our model can't be that we generate all our revenue in the winter months."

The economic impact can extend to entire communities. Snow sports are a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S., and there are mountain towns that depend on the jobs and revenue generated by busy ski areas.

With the stakes so high, advocacy groups, snow sports organizations and individuals are joining forces. U.S. Ski & Snowboard recently introduced Easy Green, which promotes sustainability and increased awareness of climate change. Many American athletes are involved with Protect Our Winters, a group that lobbies for climate legislation.

Diggins, a board member of Protect Our Winters, has spoken at the U.S. Capitol and addressed the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.

"They're agreeing on both sides of the aisle that, 'Yes, this is a problem,' " she said. " 'Yes, it's man-made. And yes, we have to fix it.' They don't always agree on how, but it's really cool that we're even at this stage where we're having these talks."

Wilson is confident the Wirth Park courses will provide a quality surface for the Loppet Cup, even if they don't reflect the snow-globe atmosphere she pictured. Diggins sees opportunity, if not beauty, in this brown winter.

The event puts World Cup cross-country skiing on an American stage for the first time in 23 years. With about 35,000 people watching at Wirth Park and more tuning in via livestream, Diggins hopes they will be motivated to think about climate change and inspired to act.

"Everyone at these races cares about winter," she said. "This is a reminder that we can't take it for granted. All these little kids who will be fired up by these races, we want them to have a chance to ski themselves when they're older. That's why this is so important."