Will There Be Enough Snow for the Winter Olympics?

Using data from the NCEP Climate Forecast System Reanalysis (CFSR) and ERA5 datasets we investigate historical snow depth and air temperature in South Korea to assess the likelihood of favorable conditions for the Olympic athletes.

This year’s Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea are just around the corner, so we took a look into the location’s weather conditions over the past decades. To make things even more interesting, we also analyzed the historical weather data for Beijing, where the following Winter Olympics are set to take place in 2022.

For these analyses we used the NCEP Climate Forecast System Reanalysis (CFSR) dataset. CFSR has 69 variables including temperature, soil data, pressure, wind components and so on, and it covers several decades — from 1979 to 2010. It’s a global, high resolution, coupled atmosphere-ocean-land surface-sea ice system designed to provide the best estimate of the state of these coupled domains.

PyeongChang is located in a temperate continental climate area with rainfall throughout the year. However, the Olympics are held in February which is one of the driest months in PyeongChang. Beijing at the same time has high humidity mostly during summertime due to the East Asian monsoon, and colder, drier and windier winters influenced by the Siberian anticyclone.

Will it snow or will they blow?

Snow depth analysis using data from CFSR

As you can see from the graph above and the more in-depth analysis in the notebook, the two Olympic Games locations historically don’t receive much snow in February. This means that both of the cities need to produce massive amounts of artificial snow in advance to meet the necessary conditions of the Winter Olympic Games.

They will need to start making snow in early January. Producing artificial snow requires quite specific weather conditions of which the most critical one is the temperature. An air temperature of at least -3.5 degrees Celsius is required to successfully make snow.

Using the Planet OS API and data from CSFR, we analyzed the average temperature in PyeongChang and Beijing in January during the recent decades. Fortunately, we discovered that even though both of the locations fail to meet the natural snow conditions, they do have consistently favorable conditions for artificial snowmaking.

Please note that CFSR provides data up to 2010, so to add additional data from the more recent years, we also used data from another climate reanalysis dataset called ERA5 that will soon also be available in the Planet OS Datahub.

A recent New York Times article stated that with the global climate getting warmer it will become more and more difficult in the coming decades to host massive winter sports events such as the Winter Olympic Games. Our analysis showed however that at least the two upcoming Olympics in South Korea and Beijing are likely to have sufficient cold to produce enough artificial snow.

For more detailed examples of how you can use the Planet OS Datahub API to work with high-quality historical weather data, check out my Jupyter notebook on GitHub.

The Planet OS Datahub provides free access to high-quality earth science data, and is routinely updated with new datasets. If you’d like to be notified when new data becomes available, follow Planet OS on Medium or subscribe to our email newsletter to receive future updates in your inbox.

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