SOCHI, RUSSIA – Andy Newell might be the U.S.’s best shot at cross country gold in the Sochi Winter Olympics.

According to the US Ski Team, Newell has three world cup podiums and was recently ranked fifth in the world at sprint.

Olympic emblem

For those with a passion for cross-country skiing and a concern about the impacts of a warming climate, Newell is also among the sport’s leading spokespersons on climate change. Over the past year, Newell collected signatures from winter sports athletes calling on world leaders to tackle the challenges posed by the issue.

While training in Park City, Utah, for instance, Newell would set up a table outside the training facility and talk to other Olympic hopefuls. By last September, he had gotten 33 signatures of support from other winter sports athletes. He then contacted writer and activist Bill McKibben, founder, and the two discussed how athletes could advocate more effectively for climate change solutions.

Newell then set up a website, Athletes for Action, to house and promote climate change and weigh potential strategies with fellow winter sports athletes and enthusiasts. “As someone who spends their life outdoors,” Newell has said, “it’s my responsibility to help remind everyone of what’s at stake especially to the folks in Government who can do something about it.”

Members of Yale’s “Team Climate,” comprised of five graduate students, caught up with Newell recently, and in an interview he said skiing conditions are already changing and competitions are becoming harder to plan. “There have been so many instances in the past 10 years where our early season competitions have been delayed or canceled due to lack of snow, or our spring and summer training disrupted because of erratic weather. All you have to do is turn on the news or look outside and it’s pretty obvious that uncommon climate is causing a lot of problems and disasters these days.”

Prospects from a Warmer Climate: Indoor Skiing?

In the Olympic Games in Sochi, machine-made snow is again becoming the new training norm for many competitive skiers. “Nowadays in order to hold a world cup ski event in November or December, we are racing on some kind of man-made snow even in northern countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden,” Newell said. “It’s common for Nordic athletes to train on glaciers during the summer months, but in recent years the summer skiing on glaciers has become very unstable due to a lot of them melting away. Places such as Eagle Glacier in Alaska and the Dachstein Glacier in Austria are places that I’ve personally seen change in the last decade.”

With less snow, and less predictable snow fall, some countries have resorted to skiing indoors in artificial ski tunnels, Newell said. “There is currently one in Germany, Finland, and Sweden, and I fear that skiing inside will become the norm in the future, which is a scary thought.”

Tom Owens is a graduate student at Yale and one of five Yale grad students comprising the “Team Climate” effort at the Winter Olympics to help increase visibility and awareness of climate change issues.