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Carbon Brief’s shamelessly tenuous Olympics Friday Five

  • 27 Jul 2012, 13:30
  • Christian Hunt and Ros Donald

Yes, it's Olympics day! (Apparently it's actually going on for weeks.)

Despite the fact that our editor was generally picked last at sports, if at all, a wave of Olympic fervour has swept the Carbon Brief office.

Inspired by the games, here is our attempt to guide you through the (tenuous) need-to-know links between the Olympics and climate.

1. Might an Olympic deluge bring Team GB victory?

Kenyans are good at altitude, Australians can cope with heat, and we... play a lot of sport in the rain. Might UK athletes lose their home advantage if the sun shines?

If so, climate skeptic weather forecaster Piers Corbyn has good news - the astrophysicist's secret forecasting formula has brought forth dire warnings. Says Corbyn: "We're very confident that there will be a lot of rain - a deluge, really - during the entire Olympics period and we are 80 percent sure that the Opening Ceremony itself will feature heavy rains, including hail and thunder."

He's got potential future Prime Minister Boris Johnson convinced, although our glorious Mayor is confident that Corbyn's predictions of a new mini Ice Age won't dilute London's Olympic spirit.

What does Corbyn's arch-nemesis the Met Office say? The UK outlook over the next five days looks a bit mixed - with some showers - but broadly pleasant. The Daily Mail sides with the Met Office for once, placing its bets on a dry opening ceremony. The Met has actually gone Olympics-tastic, with weather forecasts for almost every sport - or check out the forecast for weather at the 1948 London Olympics, which is almost guaranteed to be right.

2. At moments of intense national pride, geoengineering is totally fine

Perhaps we should mimic the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the Chinese government simply ordered Zhang Qian, its 'head of weather manipulation', to stop it raining using geoengineering techniques:

"… we use a coolant made from liquid nitrogen to increase the number of droplets while decreasing their mean size … the smaller droplets are less likely to fall and precipitation can be reduced."

It's not clear whether it worked, but inspired by this example of central planning in action, the BBC have already asked: "Why won't the UK make the sun shine for the Olympics?"

Unfortunately, actually reading the article makes the idea of genoengineering away the rain seem less attractive. One expert told the BBC that one downside is that the rain just gets shifted elsewhere - to "Reading or Slough". Another noted:

"To stop rain spoiling the Olympics would require a fleet of light aircraft, which could interfere with commercial flights, and a vast quantity of chemicals … probably best avoided."

As beloved British bard John Betjeman might have said: "Come chemical Olympic rain and fall on Slough / it isn't fit for rowing now."

3. Extreme weather can slow you down

"The relationships between 'the environment' and sports are wide-ranging and multifaceted … Participants thus have to compete against the forces of nature just as much as they compete against each other."

So begins a comprehensive review of the effect of weather conditions on past Olympics. The research was written by Dr Benny Peiser, one-time sports science lecturer and current director of climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Much of the paper is a gruelling account of how heatwaves cause serious problems for long distance runners. But what causes the changes in climate which affect marathon runners? Natural variation in the climate gets a nod, as does the influence of the sun. Manmade climate change does not.

4. The 2008 Olympics slashed carbon emissions

China's drive to reduce traffic on its roads during the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing dramatically cut the country's emissions. That's according to an exquisitely-timed release from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado - just in time for the first week of London 2012. The data shows that during the Olympics, when the amount of people allowed to drive in town was restricted in a bid to cut air pollution, carbon dioxide emissions reduced by between 24,000 and 96,000 metric tonnes.

That equates, says NCAR, to more than one quarter of one per cent of the cut needed to restrict global temperature rise to two degrees celsius or less - which is huge - and shows citywide transport strategies can have a tangible impact on global emissions. Good news from China, but we doubt this will do much to combat the suspicions of some climate skeptics that  all greens are secret Communists.

5. Climate change is probably more of an issue for the winter Olympics, to be honest

Where was the mini Ice Age when you needed it in 2010? A snow no-show blighted Vancouver's Olympics two years ago, to the extent that organisers had to have natural and man-made snow brought in by truck and plane. The snow was then artfully positioned on structures made of straw and wood and organisers studded the artificial slopes with tubes of dry ice. Exhaustingly, all this had to be done every 12 hours.

Of course, the absence of snow was probably down to some combination of natural climate cycles, local weather and the warming planet. It's not simple to attribute any single weather event - whether snow, a lack of it, or rain - to climate change. That doesn't stop this piece suggesting carbon offsetting could somehow have stopped the inconveniently temperate conditions in Vancouver, though. Hmmm.

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