‘We can’t play when our fields are flooded’: How climate change will impact sport in Australia

By Angela Heathcote 28 September 2018
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Human-caused climate change could change the way we play and enjoy sport this century, experts are warning.

THE DANGER OF extreme heat to athletes isn’t a new conversation. Earlier this year, during a test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, temperatures reached a sizzling 57.6 degrees Celsius at one point – leaving both sportsmen and spectators sweltering.

Seven of Australia’s 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. As temperatures continue to rise, climate scientists are warning that this dangerous level of heat will make playing sport during some parts of the year a high-risk activity, or not even possible at all in the summertime.

In fact, athletes are already feeling the heat. In an article published in the New York Times in September 2018, journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis argued that human-caused global warming played a big part in world number two tennis player Roger Federer’s recent loss to John Millman, an Australian ranked 55th in the world. “It was hot,” Federer told a press conference after the match, adding that it “was just one of those nights where I guess I felt I couldn’t get air; there was no circulation at all”.

Dr Joelle Gergis, climate scientist from the University of Melbourne and author of Sunburnt Country: the history and future of climate change in Australia, says Australians will have to change the way they enjoy sports into the future. “Based on the recently observed increase in extreme temperatures, it’s very possible that future summers in Australia’s most densely populated cities will soar past the 50 degree mark in years to come.”

The idea of heat thresholds – halting play at a certain temperature – has been thrown around, but experts argue such mechanisms cannot be uniformly applied because of the amount of variation between sports. The worst affected sports are those played in summer, and those that require athletes to heavily exert themselves – although a report by Climate Coalition UK predicted that cricket would be the sport hardest hit.

“We might need to think about playing these games in the evening or during the transition seasons of spring or autumn to avoid the most intense summer temperatures,” Joelle says. But winter sports aren’t safe from the impacts of climate change either. A recent study led by researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada found that just eight out of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to host the Games by the end of the 21st century.

‘Heat policies, venue resilience and climate action’

According to a 2015 report by Australia’s Climate Institute, heat policies, venue resilience and climate action” will be necessary to secure the future of sport, on both an elite and community level.

The most significant findings from the report were that existing heat policies are ‘unclear’ or ‘inconsistent’, with heat thresholds ranging from 34 to 41 degrees Celsius. “In 2014, major international tennis and cycling competitions were prime examples of the impact of heat on players and spectators, and the uncertainty around application of heat policies,” the Institute found.

“As climate change continues, Australians will experience even more days of extreme heat and related health impacts. When a person’s core temperature rises above 39 degrees, their body hovers dangerously close to unconsciousness,” says Joelle. “If the core body temperature goes above 42 degrees – even for just a short period of time – death is a very real possibility.”

The future of local sport

The Climate Institute’s 2015 report also found drought had the potential to devastate community sport, while posing long-term consequences for sport at the elite level.

“Small communities rely on sport as their place of respite and connection to their neighbours, and when sport is unavailable to them researchers say that isolation leads to the deterioration of social and health conditions,” says Dr Sheila Nguyen, Executive Director of the Sport Environment Alliance (SEA). “Climate change impacts not only our natural environment, but also the health of our communities.”

The SEA, which works closely with the Climate Institute, formed in June 2015, and now has a total of 24 members, including the Australian Football League, Cricket Australia and Bowls Australia. “We believe in a clean future as part of our vision of a future where we can continue to do what we love, that is, watch and play sport,” says Sheila. “We are steadfastly popularising the importance of protecting our clean future.”

The SEA isn’t just concerned about the extreme heat that climate change will bring. “Consider flood, drought and rising sea levels. We can’t play when our fields are flooded, the grounds are unplayable when drought hardens surfaces, and those who play sport are struck by heat illnesses under the unrelenting sun,” Sheila says.

The architecture of stadiums and fields are changing rapidly, according to Sheila, future proofing them against climate change. “These changes include water capture and storage, energy efficient systems, use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, heating and cooling systems that are engineered to sever the reliance on traditional energy sources.” The most recent example of this was in early September when the Melbourne Cricket Ground went carbon neutral for the finals season, the facilities manager calling the move a “moral obligation”.

However the changes currently being made to elite venues may not be a viable option for more local facilities, according to the Climate Institute. “New stadiums and upgrades now often include retractable roofs, synthetic surfaces, raised flooring and flood proofing, and equipment, and energy efficiencies to compensate for increased cooling costs. Many if not all these changes are beyond local facilities.”