Exceptionally warm Winter Olympics have become something of a trend, but that will not be the case this year in South Korea. In fact, host city PyeongChang is facing serious cold during the two-week event, with the temperature forecast to plunge to 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit during Friday’s opening ceremony with wind chill potentially dropping it into the single digits.
On Saturday, International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesman Mark Adams warned attendees of the opening festivities to “wrap up and prepare properly.” Both the opening and closing ceremonies are being held at the Olympic Stadium, an open-air arena with a 35,000-person capacity. As you may recall from past Olympics, athletes parade around the venue at a leisurely stroll, waving their country’s flag. Something tells me that pace might quicken this year.
Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer at Weather Underground, told Earther that a dipping polar jet stream across East Asia has moved farther south than usual, allowing “some of the very cold air that predominates across Siberia in midwinter to push southeastward into South Korea, leading to some of the most frigid conditions in decades.”
He said after the cold spell this weekend as the games kick off—where lows will approach 10 degrees Fahrenheit—the weather should get milder.
USA Today reporter Christine Brennan described the experience thus far as “a brutal, biting wind” day and night, with everyone “bundled up nearly beyond recognition to guard against the frost bite that descended on some poor souls who attended recent outdoor events in the region.”
“For the first time in 24 years, the Winter Olympics have come to a place where it’s actually winter,” wrote Brennan on Monday.
PyeongChang, a popular ski destination, is about 2,300 feet above sea level. It experiences snowy winters and is considered the coldest city at its latitude, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist SungHyun Do.
As Accuweather reports, East Asian winters are comparable in a lot of ways to those in the experienced in northeastern U.S. February is also PyeongChang’s driest month, so at least it’s unlikely spectators and athletes will have to endure both frigid and blizzard conditions. Strong winds from Siberia help keep the air extremely cold and dry.
The opening ceremony, which will be attended by many world leaders and dignitaries—including Vice President Mike Pence—takes about three hours. A bag containing hot packs, seat warmers, a blanket, a hat, and a windbreaker will be distributed to crowd members to help fight the cold, and wind shields and heat lamps will provide additional warmth. That’s not to mention the flame of the Olympic torch, which will at least be heartwarming when lit during the event.
Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi told reporters on Tuesday that the IOC has strict weather rules, and that certain events, like ski jumping, can’t take place if there’s a strong wind.
With less than 50,000 residents, USA Today notes PyeongChang is the smallest city to host an Olympic Games since Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. That was also the last time the Winter Olympics were truly wintry. The 2014 games in Sochi and the 2010 games in Vancouver were surprisingly warm, and fans and athletes were greeted with slushy snow.
Henson said that as a rule, climate change is affecting temperatures more in winter than in summer, and that a small rise in winter temperature can have a major impact on snowfall patterns. A recent analysis by a team of researchers led by Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, found that by midcentury, nine former Winter Olympics sites may not be reliably cold enough to host the games, including Sochi and Vancouver. PyeongChang and Beijing, host in 2022, should still be in play.