As a professional ultramarathon runner, Clare Gallagher has tackled plenty of challenges, from mountains to heat, but none have been as much of a threat to her career as worsening forest fires in the US’ west, which have led to choking air across big swathes of the region each summer.
Fires and poor air quality canceled two major races in November last year and in February, the 27-year-old said.
“Mega fires are becoming more common. Races are getting canceled at a much higher rate than in the past,” Gallagher said. “As a professional runner, it’s crazy. Those were the only two races I had on my calendar in those winter months and it basically knocked my racing schedule to zero.”
As the planet heats up, competing in — or even watching — many outdoor sports is becoming increasingly challenging as climate change brings harsher heat waves, more intense rain, greater fire risks and other threats.
As heat waves hospitalize players in sports from tennis to cricket, competitions are canceled due to extreme weather, and winter sports try to cope with less snow and ice, sporting bodies have begun eyeing ways to adapt to the changing climate.
The World Meteorological Organization last month said that this year was on track to be among the world’s hottest on record — another record year in a string of them over the past five years.
That is worrying officials planning events from next year’s Summer Olympics in Japan to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
However, the Olympics and soccer are not the only sports struggling with heat.
In January last year, during a match in Australia when temperatures hit 42°C, England cricket captain Joe Root was sent to a hospital with exhaustion and dehydration.
At the US Open in August last year in New York, a tennis fan collapsed in the stands and several players requested medical attention during their matches as temperatures soared above 32°C amid crushing humidity.
As a result, the US Tennis Association imposed special rules to allow players a 10-minute break between the second and third sets under such conditions.
The WHO has said that heat stress linked to climate change is likely to cause 38,000 extra deaths per year worldwide between 2030 and 2050, as it worsens existing health problems and provokes heat stroke and exhaustion.
In Britain, golf, cricket and soccer are also suffering from wetter weather linked to climate change, a study by British campaign group the Climate Coalition found last year.
More downpours means pitches and fairways are more likely to be soggy or unplayable, the study said.
The England and Wales Cricket Board said that 27 percent of England’s home one day international games since 2000 had been played with reduced overs due to rain disruptions, the study said.
Due to heavy storms, the board in 2016 spent about ￡1 million (US$1.25 million at the current exchange rate), and ￡1.6 million in 2017 to fix facilities and support affected clubs, the report said.
Extreme weather also caused the cancelation of 25 Football League fixtures during the 2015-2016 season, it said.
Major national soccer leagues offered about ￡750,000 to help flood-affected clubs that season, while the Football Association spent ￡48 million to weather-proof pitches, it added.
Niclas Svenningsen, who heads the Climate Neutral Now initiative under the UN Climate Change Secretariat, said that sport’s global appeal could be a way to drive more urgency for action on climate change.
“Sports ... has a very big potential to be part of the solution” by cutting its own emissions and creating demand to deal with climate threats, Svenningsen said.
The secretariat in December last year launched an initiative to get sporting groups to reduce their climate impact. Nearly 50 bodies have signed up so far, including tennis, soccer, ice hockey, sailing and the Olympics, it said.
Svenningsen hopes the signatories would host climate-neutral sporting events by having matches close to public transport, reducing plastic waste and using renewable energy at their facilities.
“The reach of sport is tremendous. There are more people watching sports games than listening to politics. We don’t want to preach to the converted,” he said in a telephone interview.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that climate change is now an underlying factor in terms of host city selection and how the Games would run.
By 2050, less than half of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to host the Games again, a study last year by Canada’s University of Waterloo found.
In the 2080s, that number will whittle down to just four cities — Calgary in Canada, Beijing, Albertville in France and Salt Lake City in the US — if global warming is not curbed and temperatures rise 4.4°C above preindustrial levels, the study said.
“You can essentially kiss winter sports goodbye in the not-too-distant future,” Svenningsen said.
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