It’s wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere – and typically that means cold temperatures and snow at the higher latitudes. Beijing, China, the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, is at roughly the same latitude as Denver, Colorado. It’s cold, but it’s also incredibly dry. Why? And what does that mean for the winter sports requiring snow?

The overall climate of Beijing can be described as “humid continental” which features hot, rainy and humid summers due to the influence of the East Asian monsoon; and cold, windy, dry winters due to the presence of the Siberian High. This is a semi-permanent system of high atmospheric pressure centered in northeastern Siberia during the colder half of the year (September – April). It forms because of the intense cooling of the surface layers of air over the continent (the cold tundra) during this season. Colder air is denser air and creates the high pressure. It also stifles the formation of clouds. No clouds, no snow. Heating in the summertime causes the Siberian High to dissipate because of the warmer, less dense air. 

So, the lack of snow is nothing new for the area. Beijing and the surrounding mountainous regions of Yanqing and Zhangjiakou weren’t chosen for snowfall amounts, but rather for the potential of having cold enough temperatures in February to sustain snow – and in this case, nearly 100% of the snow is artificially produced, a first in winter Olympic history. The steep and varied slopes in the surrounding mountains are also well suited for the alpine skiing, snowboarding, bobsledding, luge and skeleton events. 

What does the future hold for the Winter Olympics? In the event of sustained high emissions of fossil fuels, only four of the past 21 Winter Olympic host cities – including Beijing – will make for reliable host locations by the year 2050. It’s believed that just one host city, Sapporo, in the northern part of Japan, will still be a reliable host of the Winter Olympics by the end of the century due to the mountainous terrain and proximity to water. Much like lake effect snow in the USA, in Japan, cold air from Siberia and Northeast China flows across the relatively warm waters of the Sea of Japan and collide with the Japanese Alps, creating some of the heaviest snowfall found anywhere on earth.   

photo: Ulyana Horodyskyj, in Nepal