Friday, July 31, 2015

Anchorage for the Winter Olympics

The International Olympic Committee just awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing/Zhangjiakou (China). The city of Zhangjiakou is located several hours northwest of Beijing and has a emerging skiing infrastructure that caters to the Chinese elite in Beijing. Of course Beijing was the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics and this recent experience will undoubtedly help with preparation for the 2022 games.

Figure 1. Photograph of 2022 site venue in Zhangjiakou. Image source:

As an Alaskan, I cannot help but wonder what it would be like to have the Winter Olympics take place right here in out corner of the world. Anchorage very nearly won the rights for the 1994 Winter Olympics that ultimately ended up in Lillehammer, Norway. We placed a very close second place in the first round of voting but did not pick up any votes in the second round and ended with zero votes in the third and final round of voting.

Well, now that 2022 has been awarded, what about 2026? It turns out that some people have already been thinking about this. Former Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan convened an Anchorage 2026 exploratory committee to discuss the possibility. According the the Municipality of Anchorage's website, the last meeting of the committee was in 2013. There are (were?) 25 people on the committee that represent a cross-section of the business and sports community. There's even a Facebook Page promoting Anchorage 2026 that has over 5,000 Likes.


As a climatologist, what interests me the most about the possibility of Anchorage hosting the Olympics in 2026 is the suitability of the weather for such an event. [Note: there does not appear to be a climatologist on the exploratory committee]. The last two Winter Olympics [in Vancouver and Sochi] were famously warm. High temperatures in the 50°s and 60°s made them feel more like Summer games than Winter games. So how does Anchorage stack up from a historical perspective? Let's look at the prior Olympic climatology and compare the Anchorage values for the same dates. Figure 1 shows the average temperature for each Winter Olympics since 1932 (no games were held in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II). 

Figure 2. Average daily temperature (high plus low divided by two) during the dates of the Winter Olympics for the host city (red) and Anchorage (blue). Data obtained from the Olympic reports FTP server, National Center for Environmental Information, and various national meteorological organizations.

Anchorage is consistently colder than the host city according to Figure 2. In fact, Anchorage is 10°F colder on average. The data points for 2018 and 2022 show the normal daily temperature for the host cities and the normal daily temperatures for Anchorage. Not only is Anchorage as cold or colder than the other cities on the list, Anchorage is consistently cold. There is much less variability in the winter temperatures observed in Alaska's largest city compared to other "cold" cities in Europe and Asia. 


Of course it takes more than cold to be considered for the Olympics – you need snow too. This is where Anchorage really stands out. It's not that Anchorage gets a ton of snow, it's that we always have snow and always have temperatures suitable for making snow. Even last winter, where a record low total of 25.1" of snow fell, at least 1" of snow was on the ground every day during the winter. In a more typical winter, 12"-15" of snow is on the ground in mid- to late-February.

Figure 3. Actual high temperature, low temperature, and snow depth measurements for Anchorage during the dates of the Winter Olympics.

A depth of 12" of plenty sufficient for cross-country races at the sea level trails within Kincaid Park or at the Campbell Tract. In the mountains, there is a near certainty that heavy snow will blanket any mountain(s) identified for downhill ski races. In the event that too little natural snow falls, there will be many opportunities to create snow during cold nights in advance of the games. Figure 3 shows the average snow depth during past Winter Olympics and the normal depth during the upcoming games.

The newly awarded 2022 games in Zhangjiakou are located in an area that receives very little snow. Their bid document states that nearly all the snow used in the games will be artificially made. While great advancements have been made in artificial snow production over the years, it is still not the same as natural snow. Places like Alyeska and Hatcher's Pass almost always have a solid natural snow base by mid-February. As with many things in life, natural is better.


From a climatological perspective, Anchorage is ideally suited to hosting the Winter Olympics. It is cold, but not too cold (sorry Fairbanks), and it receives plenty of snow (or has lengthy snow-making opportunities).

Other Considerations

While this narrative is primarily focused on the climate side of the equation, it is worth mentioning a few of the other benefits of an Anchorage Olympic games.

Major infrastructure projects are a mainstay of Olympic host cities. New roads, railroads, ports, utilities, etc. must be built or improved. Much of these costs are paid for with Federal dollars. If the 2026 Winter Olympics are awarded to an American city, which is a strong possibility, the money will go somewhere. It might as well come to Alaska.

Anchorage has a strong hotel, healthcare, engineering, and university system in place. Anchorage also has a workforce with substantial construction experience. Many of the services that are required of a host city are already functioning. This puts us ahead of many smaller resort towns in the western Lower 48.

Alaska has talked for decades about diversifying it's economy but has never acted on it. The Olympics are an instant way to build-out the city for a post–resource extraction economy. Let's face it, the oil will run out someday soon. Then what? A gas pipeline is still a pipe dream. Mining and fishing bring only small royalties to the state and it is hard to see where more of those jobs will come from. Why not plan on bringing high-tech jobs to Alaska. What about server farms? Or going all-in on tourism? How about becoming the center of a pan-Arctic economy? Whatever it is, the Olympics is an opportunity to let other people pay a lot of the bills for our future. 

In so many ways, Anchorage 2026 could be a window to our future. This is our last, best shot at it. Let's show the world that Anchorage is a world class winter wonderland!

P.S. - As recent Olympic and World Cup biddings have shown, paying bribes to selection committee members can make a big difference. If there were a medal awarded to states with ethically challenged politicians, Alaska might win the Gold. Maybe we can put those bribery skills to good use for a change.  :)