Olympic emblemIn 2002, 13-year-old Elena Hight became the first woman to land a 900 score in competitive snow-boarding. In the decade-plus, she has accomplished lots more in the sport to be proud of.

Already a two-time Olympic medalist, Hight competed in the X-Games last year and she became the first snowboarder ever to land what in the sport’s Superpipe competitions is known as “a double backside alley-oop rodeo.”

The outdoors has always been a priority of Hight’s, passionate about the environment and worried about how climate change is affecting her profession.

Taking a break during a recent busy training schedule, Hight spoke with “Team Climate” members about her personal views on climate change. “I definitely have seen the impacts of climate change, just especially over the last few years,” she said.

“I’m from Lake Tahoe and our winters have gotten so much shorter and drier and warmer than they were ever were before.”

Elena Hight Photo
Snow-boarder Elena Hight sees ‘shorter and drier and warmer’ Lake Tahoe winters.

She says the warming trend she observes on the slopes of Lake Tahoe are evident in many other parts of the world. “I’m lucky enough to be able to travel all over the U.S. and across Europe, and in the summer time we go to the southern hemisphere because it’s their winter. I definitely see the trend of warmer, shorter, drier winters. I think all across the world, this trend is happening.”

She sees professional winter sports competitions getting cancelled around the world for lack of snow. The Audi FIS Alpine World Cup City Event in Munich, Germany, scheduled for January 1, 2014, was cancelled because of unseasonably warm temperatures and forecasts for more of the same. There are no plans to reschedule it. It’s one of a number of recent examples of winter sporting events being cancelled — and along with them the loss of those revenues — because of warmer temperatures.

It’s the second consecutive year that the Munich race had to be cancelled for lack of sufficiently cool temperatures and snow.

Asked if snowboarding professionals and their suppliers frequently discuss climate change, Hight replied, “We haven’t really gotten together as a group and discussed it, but it’s very clear that the effects are due to climate change. The only reason why they didn’t have enough snow is because it’s been so warm and very, very unseasonably warm, and dry. It hasn’t really snowed at all this season yet — in a place that has been known for big heavy winters and lots of snow. It’s definitely very apparent to all of us in our industry.”

Hight acknowledges being concerned too about how temperatures will play out in the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Hight says professional events are being cancelled or rescheduled given a lack of adequate snow. “We actually just had a contest cancelled within Lake Tahoe, and it was actually moved to Colorado because the resort in Tahoe didn’t have enough snow to build the features for us,” she said. The explanations for the cancellation, she said, “weren’t directly related to climate change, it was more that they related it to a bad snow season. But it’s definitely a concern across the board of whether that will happen again this season.”

Hight is practical in considering potential consequences of climate change on the winter sports that are both her passion and her living. “I think that our economy, in the snowboarding industry, is definitely directly affected by climate change,” she said. “The less snow there is, the fewer people want to buy products to go up on the mountains and buy tickets to go snowboarding, and that is what fuels our entire sport, so I definitely think it is a concern.”

She says she thinks the news media could better cover implications of climate change for winter sports. Although “there are definitely some advocates” for climate change awareness in her industry, she said, she has “definitely not noticed enough” media attention on the issue.

She is forthright too about the contradictions posed by her own profession. “We do have a large carbon footprint as athletes and snow athletes and I think it’s all about the little things that people can do that can make a big difference.”

Also see:
Fewer Past Venues Seen Suitable as Future Winter Olympics Sites
Climate Change as an Olympics issue Sochi … But no ‘Game’

Bo Uuganbayar is a graduate student in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and one of five “Team Climate” members attending the Winter Olympics to help boost awareness of climate change.