Snow falls at the biathlon team relay event at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Canada. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps

I always look forward to the Olympics and the chance to spend a couple weeks watching sports that, generally speaking, you don’t get the chance to watch all that often. Obviously in the Winter Olympics, many of the events can be significantly impacted by weather conditions as they take place on ice and snow. With the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea quickly approaching, I decided to take a look at what the weather was like during past Winter Olympics.

I examined the Global Historical Climate Network (GHCN) Daily Summaries dating back to the first Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France, looking for historical daily weather data records that were in reasonable proximity to the host city, both in distance and elevation. In many cases, there was not a weather observation site with a long period of record in immediate proximity to the location of the Opening Ceremony. However, I generally considered a site within 100km (62mi) distance and 500m (1640ft) elevation to be a reasonably representative approximation for comparison purposes. Please keep that in mind; in other words, there are undoubtedly some error bars around the values I present here. However, some trends are strong enough to make some basic conclusions. What you see below is thus a snapshot of the average weather during each Olympics, rather than a climatological normal for the host cities.

Table of statistics for average observed weather during the course of the Winter Olympics. Click on the image for a larger version.

For three of the Winter Olympics (St. Moritz ’28, St. Moriz ’48, and Cortina ’56), no observing site existed that was reasonably close in elevation. All of the closest observing sites within 100km of the host city were over 1000m different in elevation. Therefore, the above table is not complete, but the vast majority of the Winter Olympics have a representative observation with which to compare. It’s also worth noting that the closest observation to Turin (2006) was Milan, which is just over 100km away. However, the climatological normals for both cities in February are very close, and they sit at a similar elevation in the same broad valley in northern Italy, so Milan was considered a close approximation. Although a climate site does exist in Turin, the data was unavailable for this time. The only other instance of incomplete data was Nagano (1998), which had some missing minimum temperature data. Other nearby sites in Japan also had some missing minimum temperature data, so an average was just computed from what was available. Put an asterisk next to those two sites if you want.

The other note about the data is that a GHCN site with representative data was not found for Sochi. However, I decided to replace that with archived METAR observations from nearby Adler (URSS), which is actually closer to the Sochi Olympic Park than the Sochi observation itself. This data was retrieved from Weather Underground and seemed representative of the conditions in the area.

The Wintry Ones

Panorama of Lysgårdbakkene Ski Jumping Arena in Lillehammer, Norway via Wikimedia Commons.

Average Temperature Less Than -2C

Eight Winter Olympics including Lake Placid ’32, Garmisch-Partenkirchen ’36, Oslo ’52, Squaw Valley ’60, Sapporo ’72, Lake Placid ’80, Sarajevo ’84, Lillehammer ’94

What was the “most wintry” of the Winter Olympics? It would be hard to top the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, which had an average temperature more than 10 degrees Celsius colder than the next closest case! All but one daily low temperature at the nearby climate site in Rena was below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18C). ESPN reporter Jim Caple said the ink in his pen froze while at the luge track. And Todd Lodwick, a U.S. Nordic Combined athlete, said, “The atmosphere there was just amazing. There was no snow, and then all of a sudden, three days before the Games, it just dumped — 2 meters — and then it stopped. And then it was pristine blue skies and cold every day.”

In addition to having cold average temperatures, many of the rest of these eight Winter Games had snowy conditions. Sapporo (1972) had numerous days during the Games with measurable snow. Lake Placid (1932) had 12 inches of snow fall during the course of the Olympics. Squaw Valley (1960) had 11 inches of snow fall on the first two days, which brought the snow depth up to 49 inches. In Sarajevo (1984), snowstorms and strong winds forced the postponement of many alpine skiing events (source). All of them generally had some snow, whether already on the ground, or a few flakes during the course of the Olympics, in addition to the colder weather.

It’s also worth noting here that although reliable data does not exist for an average to be computed for St. Moritz (1928) and Cortina (1956), we can say a few anecdotal things about the weather during those Games. For St. Moritz (1928), the Opening Ceremony was said to be held in snow (source), but downscoping foehn winds produced periods of warm weather later in the Games which forced the cancellation of a speed skating event (source). In Cortina (1956), snow was limited in the weeks preceding the Games, but as snow was being hauled in a snowstorm hit (source).

The Intermediate Ones

Average Temperature Between +2C and -2C

Seven Winter Olympics including Chamonix ’24, Innsbruck ’64, Innsbruck ’76, Calgary ’88, Albertville ’92, Nagano ’98, Salt Lake City ’02

This subset of Olympic Winter Games provided a mixed bag of weather, with average temperatures falling in the middle of the spectrum historically and both rain and snow reported. For example, the Innsbruck (1964) Games had limited snow leading up to the Olympics, requiring snow to be shipped in; rain fell during the Games (source). Salt Lake City (2002) had some warmer weather at times, but also recorded 3.4 inches of snow on the first two days of the Games, setting a wintry mood to start.

With Chamonix (1924), it’s worth briefly discussing differences in early locations versus recent locations. Chamonix is a small town (2015 population estimate: approx 9000) nestled in a mountain valley in southeastern France. Many of the early Winter Olympics locations were similar — smaller towns in valleys in mountainous regions. Weather conditions in these regions can be highly variable, and thus the sites used for comparisons should not necessarily be taken literally. For example, the closest site in 1924 to Chamonix was the observatory in Geneva, Switzerland. It met the criteria I set forth earlier, but it is entirely conceivable that on certain days and in certain situations, the weather could have been different. Other than Lake Placid (less nearby terrain) and Oslo (larger city), six of the first eight Winter Olympics sites fit this mold.

The Warmer Ones

The Olympic Rings in Vancouver Harbor, via Wikimedia Commons.

Average Temperature Over +2C

Four Winter Olympics including Grenoble ’68, Turin ’06, Vancouver ’10, Sochi ’14

A few of the Winter Olympics have been notably warmer in the host cities themselves, particularly in recent years. The last three Games (Turin, Vancouver, Sochi) have all been warmer. However, it is worth noting that these were selected as larger host cities at much lower elevations with surrounding mountain locations that have different (colder, snowier) climate regimes. Therefore, the conditions in the Vancouver Harbor are not likely to be representative of the alpine skiing course at Whistler, to give just one example. However, to maintain consistency through the process, I only looked at the weather in the host cities, where the Opening Ceremonies would be, the Olympic Village would be located, and most of the visitors and spectators would at least travel through for part of their time at the Games.

However, despite the fact that the host cities themselves may have been warmer than some of the higher elevation event venues, warm weather did cause some issues more generally. In Grenoble (1968), warm weather softened some of the icy courses such as bobsled and luge, and some of the events were postponed or cancelled (source). For Vancouver (2010), snow had to be hauled in for some of the lower elevation courses, but snow and fog did cause some postponements of events at the higher elevation skiing courses (source).

Looking Ahead to Pyeongchang 2018

Pyeongchang, South Korea from the official Korea Flickr page.

Climatologically speaking, what do winter weather lovers have to look forward to for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea? Pyeongchang is located in the Taebaek Mountains on the Korean Peninsula, and is in close proximity to Siberia and Mongolia — a region which can see very cold continental air masses build during the winter before spilling southeast toward the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea. Therefore, Pyeongchang offers colder climatological conditions than some of the host cities we have seen recently. In fact, the average February temperature of -5.5C is colder than any host city since Lillehammer (1994). Organizers are aware of this, and are trying to plan for any significant stretches of cold weather.