How Climate Change Is Changing Sports

17:01 minutes

one freeride skier skiing downhill trough deep fresh powder
Credit: Shutterstock

Sports are a critical part of human culture just about everywhere in the world. Maybe you played little league as a kid, or like to go to the park for a game of pickup basketball, or even just cheer for your favorite team on the weekends.

Unfortunately, like so many other things, climate change is taking a toll on the world of sports. It’s getting too warm for appropriate ski conditions at ski resorts. Rising temperatures put athletes at risk of heat stroke.

Globally, sports are a trillion dollar industry, and billions of people rely on them for their jobs, fitness, and health.

Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks with Dr. Madeleine Orr, sports ecologist and author of Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport, about how our warming climate is altering how we play sports, and what to do about it.

Read an excerpt from Warming Up.

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Segment Guests

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.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick. Sports are a critical piece of culture pretty much everywhere in the world. Maybe you played little league as a kid or like to go to the park for a game of pickup basketball or even just cheer for your favorite team on the weekends. But unfortunately, like so many other things, climate change is taking a toll on the world of sports.

My sport of choice is running, and last year I ran a Halloween 10K with a group of friends. To stay toasty in the October morning chill, we planned to dress up as sheep and wear these big, fleecy sweatshirts with bells around our necks. But on the day of the race, the temperature had already hit 70 degrees by the time we took off. So we had to ditch our costumes.

Of course, it’s a much bigger issue than just Messing up my race outfit. Globally, sports are $1 trillion industry. Billions of people rely on sports for their jobs, fitness, and health. Joining me now to talk about how climate change is changing sports and solutions to the problem is my guest, Madeleine Orr, author of Warming Up, How Climate Change is Changing Sport. She’s based in Toronto, Ontario. Madeleine, welcome to Science Friday.

MADELEINE ORR: Thank you for having me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I wanted to start by asking you about your career path. You’re a sports ecologist. What does that mean?

MADELEINE ORR: Yeah, it’s a good question. So it means that I work in research at the intersection of environmental science and sport science. So essentially what we do is we’ll look at environmental factors, like heat and cold and surface stability, and then consider how that impacts the body when it’s playing or moving or exercising, but also how that impacts the business of sports and operations and when things can happen and how they can happen in order to keep it safe and competitive.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I was surprised to learn that you’re not actually much of a sports fan. So what drew you to research sports?

MADELEINE ORR: You know, it’s funny. I say that I approach sports like an atheist might approach religion–


MADELEINE ORR: –in the sense that it was always on in the background. I’m from Canada. My dad had the hockey on TV, that kind of thing. And I played as a kid and through college. But it was just where my friends were, and it was fun, and it wasn’t necessarily because I loved it. But what I realized is there are so many people who really love it. And I think there’s something powerful and potent in that.

And what I also was thinking about when I got into this was, when people move their bodies, whether it’s to go for a bike ride or a walk or to get to work or school or whether they’re just playing outside, that that’s one of the ways that North Americans, in particular, connect with nature and the natural world. Most of us in our day to day, are not out in the fields farming or in the forests doing forestry work or on the water.

So there’s a big disconnect. But when we have that leisure time, and when we have the opportunity to be active and go outdoors, it typically is associated with physical activity and sport. And so I thought, well, this could be a really interesting way to get people’s attention.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And let’s pivot back to professional sports. During the last Olympics in Tokyo, the way climate change is impacting this world became a mainstream conversation. When did you first become aware that climate change was impacting sports?

MADELEINE ORR: So I first started noticing it in the early 2010s with skiing. So I come from a skiing background– not competitive. I’m very recreational, but I loved it. And I grew up on the mountain, and I started noticing our mountains melting. And then I spent a season in France, actually, in the Alps, on a gap year. And that’s what really shook me awake.

It was 2015. We had a really bad snow year, and that meant that injuries went up, which sounds a little counterintuitive. But basically, if the snow quality isn’t very good, and there’s fewer runs open because the conditions aren’t good, and they’re only going to make snow for two or three runs, it gets crowded as well. And that’s where you start to get those collisions, especially with kids. So we saw a lot of injuries. And part of my job was to take people to the hospital when that happened.

So I was in the ER almost every day, and I was talking to the doctors and the orthopedic surgeons and saying, hey, does this make sense to you? And they looked at me and said, yeah, when the conditions are bad, we get more injuries. And why aren’t people talking about this? And they said, well, it’s not exactly popular to talk about bad snow years in a ski town.

And the real wake-up call came a few weeks later. In January, we got our first big snow of that season, which is really late. Usually that would happen in November. And because it landed on ground that was frozen, but there was no snow on it, it was just sliding across that frozen ground. And so you had avalanches. And really tragically, we lost five little kids and their instructor, 10-year-olds, at a nearby mountain. And then about two weeks later, a couple of Czech skiers, teenagers, passed away as well in an avalanche.

And so it was– when something like that happens, I think the whole community really wakes up, and it becomes a wake-up call. And for me, that was what really jolted me into action was we can’t continue like this. That’s what woke me up. And then it just kept going. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I started seeing summer sports being impacted by heat and floods and droughts, and it became very easy to start to follow that thread because there’s just so many examples, and every year gets worse.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And you’ve talked about snow sports and the specific impacts that climate change has on those. Are some sports more affected by this change in climate than others?

MADELEINE ORR: Yeah. Most outdoor sports are going to be impacted in different ways. So if you’re a summer sport athlete, you’ve probably noticed that we’re getting way more heat waves than we used to, pretty much across all of North America. You probably have also noticed that wildfire smoke is creeping into parts of the country that we didn’t usually see that before.

So last year, for example, there were very famous images of orange skies above Yankee Stadium. That shouldn’t happen. That’s just absurd. But here we are, and it was happening, and it happened for like a week. So that’s impacting summer sports.

In different parts of the country, it’s drought. So if you look at California and Arizona, it’s drought. And that is meaning that playing fields are getting really hard, in some cases too hard to play on. So if you fall on that surface, it can be like falling on asphalt. And we all know what that feels like if you were a kid and fell off your bike. It’s not pleasant. So that’s having an impact on injury rates.

In flooded areas, so particularly parts of the Southeast and the Eastern Coast where you see more floods and more hurricane action, that’s becoming an issue as well– maintaining pitches, maintaining sports spaces, including indoor spaces which get affected by the floods. So you name it, there’s an issue somewhere. Just about every sport is impacted. But outdoor sports, in particular, are feeling it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Can you tell us a little bit about when it comes to heat-related injuries? What’s heat doing to athletes?

MADELEINE ORR: Yeah, that’s a great question. So when an athlete is exercising– we tend to think that athletes are these super-powered humans, but our bodies are pretty inefficient at dealing with heat. So when you exercise, and you move your muscles and your body, about 25% of that energy is producing the actual movement of kicking that ball or putting one foot in front of the other or throwing. The rest of that energy, 75% roughly, is just producing heat.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: 75% is going to heat?

MADELEINE ORR: Just about, yeah.


MADELEINE ORR: And it depends on the person. Obviously, an elite athlete would be more efficient than that but not by much. So you’re producing a lot of heat in your body. And that’s why you sweat and you pant and you get all red in the face. And that’s your body’s mechanisms for relieving that heat, for getting it out of your body.

And we have two ways of doing that. One of them is sweating and the other is, once you’ve sweat, to evaporate that sweat off your body. Now, the challenge is if you have temperatures that start to get into the range that’s close to body temperature, so into that 90-degree range– body temperature, healthy body temperatures in that mid- to high-90s range– when you’re in that range, there’s not enough of a gradient difference between your body temperature and the temperature outside. And this is even worse if it’s humid. It can feel like running in soup. I’m sure people who live on the East Coast know what that feels like.


MADELEINE ORR: So that becomes a challenge. And what will happen is you can’t sweat effectively. You can’t evaporate that sweat. And so that heat in your body starts to build. Now, at first, it’s probably just going to feel like a little bit of nausea. You might get a little lightheaded. You’ll feel tired faster. And people experience cramps. So you’ll see athletes, if they’re running in heat, they’ll start saying, oh, I’ve got that really bad leg cramp that’s coming back. That’s the heat.

And so at that stage, when you start to see some of those issues, it’s really important to cool the body down. It’s not just that you had a hard practice. You’re overheating. So cool the body down. Get into the shade. Make sure you’re hydrated. These are all really important things. And if you do those things, that’s as far as it’ll go. You can cut those symptoms pretty quickly. We can cool the body down very efficiently. And then we have no problem.

But if those interventions don’t happen, it can take about 30 minutes of the body getting intensively hotter before what starts to turn into a heat stroke, which is essentially where the endothelial barriers around your internal organs, which are the barriers of cells that keep all the good stuff that needs to be in that organ in it and all of the bad stuff outside of it out– or in the case of your gut, the toxins that keep your gut healthy– they have to stay in there and definitely not leak out into your bloodstream.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, those barriers sound pretty important.

MADELEINE ORR: They are very important. I can’t stress how important. So what starts to happen is your body, if it overheats, it’s going to continue to send blood and that heat– it’s going to try to send blood to your skin. So it’s going to send it away from your core. And that means those barriers start to get weaker, and they can start to become permeable in some places, typically around the liver and the gut first. And that’s where we start to see heat stroke.

So with a typical stroke, it’s blood having issues getting into the brain and circulating the brain. In a heat stroke, it’s usually in your gut. Exertional heat stroke happens in the gut. And when those toxins get into different parts of the body, it can be catastrophic. And it can lead to death. And so this is why it’s so important that if you’re warm, you get cold as fast as you can– and not jump into an ice bath. Just cool your body down.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And I’d like to talk about solutions to this issue as well. Sports are a $1 trillion industry. So there has to be money here to work against climate change, right? Is that money being used to make changes?

MADELEINE ORR: Yeah. So in theory, there’s money. The challenge is that it’s not necessarily being earmarked for this purpose. And so the challenge is going to be putting policies in place that stop play or just change the way it’s going to happen when there’s a risk of heat stroke. And, like I said, that risk becomes a real problem when the feels-like temperature is around body temperature.

So it could even be that it’s only 85 or 90 degrees. But if it’s really high humidity, the weatherman is going to tell you, or the weather woman is going to say, there’s a feels-like temperature of 95 or 98. That’s when you got to start putting those protocols in place. And that’s going to look like more heat breaks. It’s going to look like cooling breaks where you get out of the sun and into the shade.

But if it gets really, really hot, into that above-100 range, that’s where we actually need to think about canceling practice, canceling a game, moving it indoors, those kind of more extreme measures. And that’s where big sport gets freaked out is they don’t want to appear to be making changes that would make them look weak or susceptible to challenges like this. And there’s this culture around sport where you’re supposed to be tough, and you’re supposed to be hard, and–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: No pain, no gain.

MADELEINE ORR: Right, and this grit– yeah, grit is important. Don’t get me wrong. But at a certain point, it’s not about grit. It’s about health and safety. And this is a safety risk. So it’s important that we start to have these conversations, that we put those policies in place. And if we can do that, we can actually prevent 100% of heat stroke cases. It doesn’t have to even be on anyone’s radar anymore. But they have to be in place. We have to know how to respond to this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: What about harnessing the power of celebrity? Do you think famous athletes could play a role in advocating for some of these changes?

MADELEINE ORR: Absolutely. And they already are. It’s sometimes hard to see. But you’ll– last year, Medvedev was on the tennis court at the US Open and started saying to the media, someone’s going to die out here. And that kind of comment– I mean, it rippled through the global media networks. But that kind of comment does raise awareness that the athletes are aware this is a problem. They are concerned.

It’s challenging sometimes. Medvedev is a very high-level athlete. He can say those kinds of things and not really face repercussions for it. But if you’re a mid-level athlete or coming off the bench on a team sport and not necessarily guaranteed in your contracts long-term, it can be challenging to say those kinds of things because you are challenging the big powers that be and how we operate and how we do things.

And a lot of athletes will be a little nervous about doing that. But when it comes to things like extreme cold, extreme heat, it actually can be an opportunity for athletes to say something because everyone who’s there is experiencing the same thing. Everyone’s thinking it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This summer, I’m really looking forward to watching the Olympics. But they’re happening in Paris. And in past years, Paris has had some really intense heat waves. Are the organizers taking heat waves and climate into consideration with the planning of this year’s games?

MADELEINE ORR: Yes. So heat is going to be a big challenge. I will be in Paris supporting a few athletes. And it’s at the top of our radar for sure. So yes and no is the answer. So in the athletes village, there’s going to be certain buildings, some of the buildings that athletes are staying in, that are not air-conditioned, which is a staple of Parisian culture.

They don’t really do air-conditioning in Europe. It’s not easy to find air-conditioned spaces, and they are not air-conditioning some of these spaces for the Olympics. So that’s a challenge for sure. And some teams like Brazil, for example, and, I think, the US are putting air-conditioning in for their athletes because they want athletes to recover in spaces that are well cooled.

The challenge then becomes, OK, well, when they’re in transit and when they get from point A to point B and when they arrive at the facility, how is that going to work? There’s lots of options that are not air-conditioning. So, for example, cooling fans, misting fans, tented areas, that athletes are in the shade when they’re waiting to compete– these are all things that Paris has done really, really well.

The other thing they’ve done is there is going to be a huge medical contingent at Paris like there was in Tokyo, which was the hottest games on record. Paris is probably not going to beat Tokyo for worst heat on record, but it will be in that arena. It will be hot probably the whole time. And this has been a challenge that Paris is aware of because last year, like you said, they had a huge heat wave when the Tour de France came through in their final leg. A few years ago, when they hosted the Women’s FIFA World Cup, there was a huge issue with heat that had athletes collapsing on the side of the field in some cases and taken a hospital.

So they are considering this. They do have a medical plan. But I would say the people I’m most worried about is all of the fans that are coming and are not properly cared for because they’re not the athletes that are on TV. So if you’re traveling to Paris, just keep that in mind. Keep a water bottle on you. Be prepared and know where the nearest restaurant or cafe is or whatever that might have air-conditioning so you can escape that heat.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And what would you say to people who think that this is just sports? Why are we focusing so much time and money on this industry?

MADELEINE ORR: Yeah. You know, I hear that all the time. And what I laugh at when I hear it is we saw during COVID how much worse mental health was, how much worse physical health was for a lot of folks who were cut off from their opportunities to play and be physically active and to convene and have fun and watch a sports game. It seems so trivial from the outside. But when you really pay attention to what’s going on when people are participating or following sports, it’s really about community. It’s about belonging. But it’s also about mental health.

And I think it’s really important that we not lose track of that. There’s physical health benefits to sports and physical activity. These are well-proven. There are also good, important social benefits, and there are mental health benefits. I don’t want to lose any of that. So I think, yes, it sounds trivial. And I wouldn’t say that this is as important as the life and death issues happening on the front lines of climate change around the world. It’s not. But it should be a consideration when we have these conversations about climate change and how we’re going to adapt because it is fundamentally a part of a healthy person and a healthy community.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Madeleine Orr, author of Warming Up, How Climate Change is Changing Sport. She’s based in Toronto, Ontario. Thanks for coming on the show.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And if you want to read an excerpt from this book, you can do so on our website– sciencefriday.com/warmingup.

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