Podcast: How winter sports athletes see the impacts of climate change first-hand

Podcast: How winter sports athletes see the impacts of climate change first-hand
Posted at 3:29 PM, Jan 26, 2022

Each year, the effects of climate change become more and more apparent — especially if you know where to look.

For winter sports athletes traveling the globe in search of snow, those changes are impossible to ignore. Brock Crouch, a professional snowboarder from San Diego, saw this first-hand in 2018 when he was buried under an avalanche.

While Crouch miraculously survived the ordeal, many others aren't as lucky. Last winter, the U.S. recorded more avalanche fatalities than any other year in recorded history, and scientists say that weather variability caused by climate change is to blame for the increasing number of avalanches.

U.S. freeskier David Wise, the two-time reigning Olympic halfpipe gold medalist, has also seen the impact every year when he travels to Switzerland to train on a glacier in Saas-Fee. Glaciers are steadily receding, with a recent study finding that glaciers in the French Alps — not far from Saas-Fee — lost an average of 25 percent of their surface area between 2003 and 2015.

"I think the first time I came [to Saas-Fee] was 15 years ago and the glacier was almost down to the town," Wise said. "So I've been able to watch the glacier just recede."

In the latest episode of the "My New Favorite Olympian" podcast from NBC Sports (listen below), several winter sports athletes — Crouch, Wise and Jessie Diggins — recounted their experiences seeing climate change up close and shared what they're doing to make a difference in the fight against it.

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The effects of climate change could soon have a major impact on the Winter Olympics themselves. One study found that of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Games, nine of them might not be reliably cold enough by 2050 to ever host them again. That's why winter sports athletes have found it incumbent to demand action now.

After winning a gold medal at the last Winter Olympics, Diggins used her newfound platform to advocate for climate change legislation. Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by snowboarder Jeremy Jones, organizes trips to Capitol Hill for Winter Olympians to meet with members of Congress and urge them to take action on climate change, and Diggins participated in one of those trips shortly after the 2018 Games.

"It was very scary," she recalled on the podcast. "I remember really just being alarmed at how much my hands could sweat in a single day."

During a bipartisan Congressional briefing, Diggins passed around her gold medal, pointed to a chip in the top of it, and used it to make a point.

"You can replace a medal, you can make a new one," she said. "You always have that memory. But we have one planet. We have one shot. We can't screw this up. This is an irreplaceable item that affects everyone on the planet. And so it is important that we get this right with the time we have."

Diggins also encouraged her ski sponsor to prioritize sustainability. They've since pledged to offset the carbon from their athletes traveling to competitions and to make their own events carbon neutral or as close to it as possible.

As for David Wise, one of the ways he's combating climate change is by reducing his own environmental footprint. He and his family are working on creating a sustainable lifestyle that includes getting their food by growing it themselves or hunting it — with a bow — on his property in Nevada. His goal is to be completely off the grid within the next decade.

While that sort of lifestyle may seem out of reach for most people, Wise offered some practical advice for those seeking to become even just a little more sustainable.

"Start to make small changes to get a little bit better," he said. "There's a lot of really simple things that you can do that you don't even realize, like composting a lot better and [being] more meticulous about your recycling."

In order to get meaningful change enacted, advocates like Diggins and Wise know that there are still people out there skeptical about climate change, and they need to find ways to bring those people into the broader conversation.

"I understand that to accept we're in the spot we are right now is very scary, because it's acknowledging that we're in a bad spot, and sometimes it's easier to deny than to accept this reality," Diggins said. "But I think that the only way to fix it is to say, 'Look, we screwed up and we have to fix it. We're not perfect, but we're going to do everything we can.'"

Wise echoed the sentiment.

"It's really pretty simple at this point," he said. "I've seen the climate changing with my own two eyes. I'm only 31 years old, but in my lifetime, I've watched winters change drastically, so there is nothing left to deny the climate is changing. The question isn't whether it's changing or not, it's how fast is it going to change? And can we slow it down enough to keep things that [we] love to do in the wintertime?"

For the full story, listen to the podcast above. "My New Favorite Olympian" is the fourth season of the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports. New episodes drop every Wednesday and will introduce you to the most inspiring members of Team USA and the issues they champion. The series is hosted by eight-time Winter Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno and NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo.