How much heat can sport handle?

Elite sport may be able to afford some adaptations to climate change, but the ability to respond at local sporting grounds is more questionable. Sport cannot go on as it has in Australia.

*This is the executive summary of a report – Sport and Climate Impacts: How much heat can sport handle? – published by The Climate Institute today. 

Climate change and extreme weather events threaten the viability of Australian sport as it’s currently played, either in the backyard, at local grounds or in professional tournaments.

Heatwaves, changed rain patterns, floods and drought are challenging playing grounds and facilities around the country. Continued global warming is and will have direct impacts on all sports. From local to professional sport, athletes, spectators, officials and volunteers are feeling the heat and the very real impacts of climate change.

Sport is embedded in Australian society, and central to our culture and economy. Participation in sport improves mental and physical health, enhances community cohesion, and contributes significantly to employment.

The majority of Australians engage in sporting activities ranging from bushwalking to team competition. Almost two-thirds of Australian children participate in organised sport outside school. More than 7.5 million Australians attend a sporting event each year. The sports industry contributes $12.5 billion to the economy.

But sport can’t go on as it has.

Global warming is likened to extreme weather on steroids. For Australia, already a country of extremes, that is bad news. Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and intense, increasing high and low rainfall extremes and worsening droughts, floods, and bushfires. Average temperatures in Australia have warmed by about 0.9 degrees since 1910. Seven of the years since 2002 have been the hottest on record.

This report finds that most sports are struggling to cope, especially at the local level. Heat policies are often ambiguous and vary at state, national and international level, with ambiguity about application. Duty of care thresholds vary within and across sports from 32 degrees to 41 degrees. By comparison, one of Australia’s largest unions, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, is explicit in its heat policy slogan: “35°C, That’s Enough”.

CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology predict the number of days over 35 degrees across the nation will increase significantly by the end of the century. Hot days will increase 2.5 times in Adelaide, treble in Melbourne and Hobart, quadruple in Sydney, be six times higher in Canberra and 20 times higher in Brisbane. In Perth, for more than two months out of a given year, the mercury will soar over 35 degrees, as it will for 10 months in Darwin.

The health dangers of extreme heat are well understood. Most of us maintain a core temperature around 37 degrees. Above 38 degrees becomes uncomfortable, and with each additional degree health problems progressively kick in. From 40 degrees onwards death becomes more likely. Athletes are at particular risk, as are vulnerable spectators, especially children and the elderly.

Recently, athletes, spectators and experts have begun speaking up about safety and viability of summer events. During heatwaves, fans at both elite and community level sport have stayed away. Rumblings are coming from AFL, rugby, cricket, and others. In 2014, major tournaments like the tennis Australian Open and cycling’s Tour Down Under in South Australia illustrated the challenges.

There have been some changes in sports facilities. The Melbourne Park precinct, where the Australian Open is held, will soon have three arenas with retractable roofs to shade courts and seating areas.

In Queensland adaptations also tackle flooding. Brisbane experienced two major floods in 2011, affecting most of the city, including sporting grounds. Suncorp Stadium, for instance, was covered by 1.5m of water. In rebuilding, management took into account changing weather conditions and included many flood resistant adaptations.

Like all major developments and infrastructure, stadiums and other large sporting grounds should not be constructed or enhanced without clear consideration of climate risks. Scenarios of short and long-term climate projections should be taken into account.

Elite sport may be able to afford some adaptations. But the ability to respond at local sporting grounds is more questionable.

Snow sports are also hard hit and their viability in Australia is significantly threatened. Rising temperatures have led to a loss of as much as 40 per cent of snow cover since the 1980s. This has hurt winter tourism in the Australian Alps, while many winter athletes like skiers and snowboarders have gone overseas to train.

If we continue to fail to tackle the challenge of climate change, sports and much more will suffer. We have to act to reduce heat trapping pollution but also be much more aware of the growing dangers of unchecked climate change.

*Read the full report here