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Home » Physical Geography, Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus, Sports, The Caucasus

Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics?

Submitted by on January 31, 2012 – 8:39 pm 20 Comments |  
Wikipedia map of the SubtropicsIn 2010, Foreign Policy magazine asked Russian opposition leader and Sochi native Boris Nemtsov why he opposed the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown. Nemtsov’s reply was broad ranging. He decried the displacement of 5,000 people while warning that corruption and organized crime would devour most of the construction funds showered on the city. He began his critique, however, with Sochi’s climate:

“[Putin] has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.”

Sochi does indeed have a subtropical climate, with average winter temperatures well above freezing, complicating Olympic plans. As Nemtsov elaborates, most of the skating facilities are being built in the Imereti Valley, which is warmer than Sochi itself. Cooling, needless to say, will be expensive. The ski venue might seem to be even more of a problem, as Olympic-quality skiing requires natural snow in copious quantities. The snowy Caucasus Mountains, however, lie just to the northeast of Sochi.  The main skiing facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) from the city center, will probably have adequate snow.

Tabular Comparison of Climate in Sochi Russia and Portland Oregon, Wikipedia DataBut while Sochi qualifies as subtropical by strict climatological criteria,* it can be misleading to characterize it as such, at least in the United States. If I were to use the term “subtropical” in class, my students would imagine Miami or perhaps Los Angeles at a stretch. Certainly those native to California’s Bay Area would never consider their winter-chilled homeland as “subtropical” in any sense. Yet the Bay Area is actually much warmer in winter than Sochi. In Palo Alto, the average February high temperature is 62°F (16°C), far exceeding Sochi’s 49.8°F (9.9°C). In terms of annual temperature range, Sochi is closely analogous to Portland, Oregon, as can be seen in the paired tables reproduced here. In the United States, the notion that Portland has a subtropical climate would seem quaint if not ludicrous.

From the Russian perspective, however, Sochi definitely is subtropical. If anything is mentioned about Sochi in the Russian press, it is generally its sub-tropicality—and for good reason, as it is essentially the only place in the country with a non-freezing winter. Climate evaluations turn out to be variable, relative to one’s personal experience. I once spent a summer in the Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimo”) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the locals found their own summer climate delightfully temperate and that of the adjacent Yukon Valley oppressively hot. In Anaktuvuk Pass, July temperatures rarely exceed 50°F (10°C). Yet one day during my sojourn the winds died down, the sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a delightful 75°F (24°C)—or so I thought. The villagers were not pleased at all with the brutal heat.

The (US) Wikipedia article on Sochi describes its climate not only as subtropical, which is technically true if slightly misleading, but goes on to characterize it as being of the “Mediterranean–type”—which is simply incorrect. Mediterranean climates are characterized by dry summers, and those of Sochi are distinctly wet. True, Sochi gets a bit more rain in the winter than in the summer, but its average July precipitation of 4.9 inches (124 mm) is hardly meager. In most climate classification schemes, a Mediterranean climate cuts off at 30 to 40 millimeters (1.2-1.6 inches) of precipitation in the driest month. (Note that by such criteria, Portland Oregon is definitely Mediterranean, yet few Americans would place such a wet city in that category.)

Beyond ice-rink cooling costs, the Sochi Olympics faces a number of problems. The Circassian protests have already been discussed in previous posts, and issues surrounding organized crime and corruption are noted above. But according to Boris Nemtsov, the mire runs much deeper. In a 2011 television interview, he claimed that the total costs could exceed U.S. $30 billion—ten times the figure of the Vancouver Olympics. Nemtsov also highlights the cultural and environmental damage suffered by the city and its environs, as roads are pushed through nature reserves and old residences are demolished without replacement. Such disruptions, he claims, have already undermined the summer tourism industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. Construction, moreover, is running behind schedule, worrying Russian leaders. In mid-January 2012, “President Dmitry Medvedev … ordered the government to ensure facilities for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were finished on time, in a rare official show of impatience with the sluggish progress.”

Sochi is not the only part of the Caucasus impacted by ambitious winter tourism designs. Russia plans to build major downhill ski resorts elsewhere. According to a January 14, 2013 article:

[T]he draft project of the tourism cluster in the south of Russia envisages the construction in 2011-2020 of five world-class mountain resorts in Lagonaki (Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Elbrus-Bezengi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania), Matlas (Republic of Dagestan). The length of all the ski slopes will total nearly 900 km. 179 elevators will be installed. Hotels of various levels of comfort designed for 89,000 places will be constructed. … Each year the North Caucasian tourist cluster will accept 5-10 million tourists.

            Such plans seem overly optimistic, as security concerns, inadequate infrastructure, and poor hotel management may make it difficult to attract many tourists. Some critics think that Russia would be much better off building additional winter sports facilities in the Khanty-Mansiysk area in the Ural Mountains of western Siberia. Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, boasts of its mountain skiing facilities and the fact that it has successfully hosted several world biathlon championship. It is also an oil-boom town located in the Russia’s richest administrative district. As such, it would seem to be a more reasonable place for winter resort development than the violence-plagued northern Caucasus.

*One prominent climate classification scheme, for example applies the subtropical label any place where the average temperature of the coldest month is between 6°C (42.8°F) and 18°C (64.4°F), while another uses the range between 2°C (35.6°F) and 13°C (55.4°F).

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for translating Boris Nemtsov’s interview.)


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  • As far as I know, external temperatures don’t have much effect on the process of cooling ice rinks.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Good point. But it would make outdoor skating much more expensive, and hence drive up construction costs. How much skating typically takes place outside?  The last outdoor Olympic figure skating was in 1956, but I am not sure about the other skating events. 

      • I think Nemtsov’s point is not necessarily that the ice rinks are more expensive to maintain in a warmer climate (though with a PhD in physics, I imagine, he’d know the answer); the real issue is whether they are worth maintaining there. The plan is to build five ice palaces in Sochi (for comparison, my hometown of St. Petersburg has one) — what for, in a city that has no culture of winter sports, no hockey team, no skaters? In that interview, Nemtsov mentions that the current stadium in Sochi, which is much smaller than anything they are proposing to build for the Olympics, has only been filled to capacity twice: at the opening ceremony and for an Elton John concert. And if these ice palaces will not be used (with or without ice) after the Olympics, perhaps it’s wasteful to build them in the first place. I imagine that there are other places that could use such facilities long-term… but they are not Sochi.

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  • Just Some Goy

    Citizens wonder why governments can’t be reasonable and do what’s right.

    Governments have no interest in being reasonable or doing what’s right. Their goal is to maximize payout to insiders.

    When viewed correctly, government actions do make (evil) sense.

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  • miz_mdk

    Actually, despite what most Americans might think, Portland does have close to a mediterranean climate. Summers are long, hot, and dry. The wine industry is booming in Oregon, the Columbia Gorge, and Washington.

    • Indeed. But whine industry is also booming in upstate New York though its climate its hardly subtropical…

    • SirBedevere

      The wines grown in the Northwest, though, are not generally those of the Mediterranean. I usually compare Northwestern wines to those of Burgundy or Alsace when describing them to European friends. Some California wines (not Russian River ones, for instance) taste much more like the wines of Italy or Spain to me than do those of the Northwest.

      • Fascinating stuff, James! A topic for another post, perhaps?

      • miz_mdk

        Thanks for this insight – I learned something new today! I couldn’t make these fine distinctions myself. However, I think microclimates do need to be taken into account – latitude does not totally determine local climate, and two areas do not necessarily share the same climate because they are close. The West Coast of North America and the Black Sea/Caucasus share some similar features, with large bodies of water to the west and high mountain ranges close to the shore.

  • GeographicScholar

    Here is another geographic perspective on Sochi and the Winter Olympics. Check it out.

    • Thanks for the link. What this geographer missed, however, is that Sochi is substantially warmer than Vancouver:

      as well as the many non-climatic issues that make Sochi quite inappropriate as a Winter Olympics venue:

      • GeographicScholar

        What was mentioned is that Sochi has a subtropical climate, and a subtropical climate is obviously warmer than Vancouver’s climate. Perhaps it was not made clear. The point was that while it is unusual for a subtropical climate to have the Winter Olympics, in Sochi’s case, it can still be done.

        • With this being Putin’s favorite project, anything can be done… but at what cost?

          • GeographicScholar

            Well, this is how I see it. What made the Olympics particularly expensive was maintaining security. Considering the possibility of terrorism, that is one thing that had to be looked at. As for the subtropical climate, well, this is the parallel to consider. While Sochi is warmer, both Vancouver and Sochi had similar geographic set ups. The indoor events were held in the city, and the snow and outdoor events were held in the nearby mountains.

          • well, the splitting of events between venues is not uncommon for both Winter and Summer Olympics. As for what made these games particularly expensive, it’s not the possibility of terrorism but the endemic corruption:


          • GeographicScholar

            Mismanagement in this case. Corruption is never a good thing. As for the geographic aspect of this, I feel that more people need to know the geographic aspect of it. That is why I made the video, comparing Sochi and Vancouver. I also have more videos about Sochi in general. More people need to learn geography, and get a different perspective on the world. One reason I made these videos. The more a person knows, the better.

          • On the importance of geography we agree completely!

          • GeographicScholar

            All the reason for creating these videos.

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