The Typhoon That Upended The 2019 Rugby World Cup

A new book describes how effects of climate change, like intense flooding from 2019’s Typhoon Hagibis, have changed sports history.

The following is an excerpt from Warming Up: How Climate Change Is Changing Sport by Madeleine Orr.

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Warming Up: How Climate Change Is Changing Sport


In 2019, athletes at the Rugby World Cup in Japan waded through knee-high water to reach the pitch after Typhoon Hagibis tore through the region and dropped 240mm (9.5in) of water over Tokyo. It was the wettest storm on record in Japan and caused $10 billion (£8 billion) in damages, making it Japan’s second most costly storm. This caught the attention of scientists Dr. Friederike Otto at Imperial College London and Dr. Sihan Li at the University of Oxford, who decided to calculate the extent to which Typhoon Hagibis could be attributed to climate change. Using weather observations from stations operated across the country by the Japan Meteorological Agency, the two scientists compared the likelihood of the storm occurring in today’s climate, which has just over 1 degree Celsius of warming over pre-industrial baselines, with the likelihood of the same storm occurring in a hypothetical world with no warming. The results were stark: human-caused climate change increased the likelihood of extreme rainfall by 67 per cent in Typhoon Hagibis, reflecting the capacity of a warmer atmosphere to hold more moisture and thus drop more rain. Flooding from the extra rainfall accounted for more than 40 per cent of the damage. Climate change is costly.

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How Climate Change Is Changing Sports

Outside Japan, the typhoon was not big news… except that the Rugby World Cup was taking place. Instead of showing up on the front pages of newspapers and headlining the six o’clock news around the world, the typhoon got some of its most significant international coverage on the sports pages. As the death toll climbed above 100, the sports news focused instead on the wrath of the global rugby community, unhappy about a string of canceled matches in the early weeks of the tournament – none of which affected the ability of the impacted teams to move forward in the competition. Fans were reimbursed for their tickets to the canceled games, but travel expenses were lost costs. Sitting in hotel rooms in cities across Japan, thousands of unhappy fans who had traveled long distances to attend the tournament redirected their wrath to World Rugby.
Admittedly, World Rugby did put their flagship event in a country known for typhoons, in the middle of typhoon season. Contingency plans were in place, but they were weak: for the England–France match, for instance, the contingency plan was to relocate to a different stadium 14 miles away, which would change basically nothing in the context of extreme rainfall and flash flooding. To onlookers, the fans’ response was unfair. Rugby is not nearly as important as the life-and-death impacts happening across the country. As Steve Busfield wrote in Forbes magazine, World Rugby was “not unsurprisingly, acting as though it is just a game and not worth dying for. Having thousands of supporters wandering around outside in a tropical storm is not behavior to be encouraged.” I tend to agree.

In the rugby world, the most engaged nations are all under increasing climate threats. For a six-week tournament slated to happen in October and November, there are few places that escape the wrath of storms, wildfires, droughts, and floods. In the past few years, parts of Australia have flooded each spring (which is October/November in the Southern Hemisphere). New Zealand’s atmospheric science body, NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research), announced that 2022 was New Zealand’s hottest year on record, and its eighth most “unusually wet” year. The start of 2023 was not much better, with Cyclones Gabrielle and Hale whipping the island in back-to-back weeks. In South Africa, the problem is drought – ongoing in some regions for more than five years. In the UK, depending on the year, it’s drought or flooding. In the United States, the fall brings wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the south and east. Some of the smaller rugby-loving nations – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga – are too small to host a tournament of this size. Even if they had the facilities, it’s unlikely a tournament on any of these islands would evade a storm between September and early November. In other words, there weren’t many other good choices for a World Cup host country. Contingency plans for hosting in Japan just needed to be more robust.

Excerpted from Warming Up by Madeleine Orr, run with permission of the author, courtesy of Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. © Madeleine Orr, 2024

Meet the Writer

About Madeleine Orr

Dr. Madeleine Orr is a sports ecologist and the author of Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport. She’s based in Toronto, Ontario.

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