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Question Your World: How Can We Study Climate Change from the Olympics?

While the whole world is fixated on the summer games in Rio, let’s use this as an opportunity to dig into some climate science. Athletes and sports fans from around the world have gathered in Rio to observe this awesome pageantry of human potential. Anyone that’s ever planned a party before knows how difficult it is to get a group of people on the same page. So, imagine how incredible it is to bring the world together for a few weeks. While everyone is together, let’s also look around at the world we live in and ask the big question - How can we study climate change through the Olympics? 

Okay, so the basic issue that the world is facing right now is a myriad of problems caused by the Earth holding more heat trapping gases than it naturally should, due to human-made activities. The warming of the planet is creating a slew of problems ranging from sea level rise to more turbulent storms to the quicker spread of diseases. Despite all of these signs, there are still a lot of people that are not convinced that our planet is really warming up. It’s understandable that a bevy of data and in-depth reports on the domino effect of climate change may not be the easiest pill to swallow, though the data does speak the truth. Since the world is currently in Olympics mode, let’s use some famous Olympic locations to show the change in temperatures and see what may result. 

By the 1900′s, humanity had already been keeping pretty good track of temperature while totally unaware of the impacts that the industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels would have on the future. These records were kept without any bias and simply recorded as facts. Similarly, we can look at temperatures right now and observe them as fact. The old data has no agenda towards climate change, it simply states average temperatures in the climate landscape that existed when these measurements were taken. So, by looking at the annual average air temperatures between then and now, we should be able to identify a trend. 

Let’s look at three cities that have been involved with the Olympics in the past. London, Sydney, and Rio. These three cities are spread out in different parts of the world and on different continents. This allows us to see the overall picture here. Fortunately all three of these cities have temperatures recorded from the year 1900 as well. London’s annual average air temperature was recorded at 51.1°FSydney clocked in at 69.6°F, and Rio was at 76.8°F. Fast forward 116 years to this moment right now and let’s examine those annual average air temperature records. Modern day London is now up by 1.2°F, Rio is 3.5°F warmer, and Sydney is now 4.2°F higher. Sure, the numbers are small, but you can clearly see that, on average, the air temperature is certainly higher. 

Now, a few degrees here and there may not seem like a big deal, but this is absolutely the heart of the issue here. For us humans, a few degrees makes little to no difference, except you may shiver or sweat more depending on the temperature change. These small changes can cause massive issues, though. Take a mosquito, for example. Closer to winter when temperatures go below 50°F, mosquitoes shut down. Meaning, 54.2°F and 50°F make a world of a difference in these little bugs. Mosquitoes are just one of the insects that can carry Zoonotic diseases like Zika, West Nile, Lyme Disease, and Dengue.

These slightly warmer temperatures make a vast impact on mosquitoes because warmer temperatures mean much shorter incubation periods and expansion of the area in which they can breed. That translates to more time and area for the mosquitoes to spread the before mentioned diseases. A slight change in temperature can certainly do that, especially when you consider the reality of the situation. If 50°F is where the mosquito shuts down, then the 76.8°F as recorded in the year 1900 would be great for the bug. However, the newly recorded 79.8°F would be even more ideal and this is why we are seeing so much news about those diseases and the ability of these bugs to quickly spread it around as much. 

Keep in mind this is just one aspect of climate change. The temperature differences are also causing ancient glacial ice sheets to melt and will inevitably impact how rivers flow. Scarier still is the reality that once the major ice sheets high atop mountains melt so will a major source of water flowing through those rivers. These slight temperature changes may seem small and don’t impact the human body as noticeably, but they are absolutely causing a plethora of changes to other systems that are far more sensitive to these seemingly minuscule temperature differences. 

For now, though, the world is focused on the summer games. As we watch them over the years, we’ll see more and more news about climate related occurrences since these small changes are going on to make big impacts around the world, including Rio. 

So, what can be done? Luckily, humans are some of the most resilient creatures to ever appear on Earth. We have figured out a way to live in nearly every condition on Earth and have managed to harness science and critical thinking to make our lives easier the further we get into our tenure on this planet. Currently, concerned scientists are already working on genetically modified mosquitoes that are unable to breed. They will be released to help slow down the spread of viruses like Zika. This is a reactionary step to a current problem, but we need not just rely on reacting; we can be proactive before catastrophes happen as well. Proper planning of roadways, buildings, and cities in general would help make our living spaces more efficient and designed to brace for the changes we’re currently looking at on a global scale. Every day new alternative energy companies are helping provide access to green-energy options to reduce the amount of heat trapping gases we put into our atmosphere. For more information on how you can get involved check out NOAA’s resiliency tool kit

Much like synchronized swimming and the relay race, climate resiliency is also a team sport, just a much larger team, all of us on Earth. 

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