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Will Snow Show for the 2002 Winter Olympics?


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Salt Lake City, UT Feb. 25 (AP by Tim Korte)–Never mind who’s going to win gold in the downhill. As far as Olympic organizers are concerned, the most important forecast will come from the National Weather Service.

Utah’s balmy February muddied parking lots at some ski resorts and raised concerns there won’t be enough snow in the Wasatch Mountains when the Winter Olympics are held Feb. 8-24, 2002.

It’s way too early to make predictions, but Olympic organizers are quick to insist they’ll meet virtually any meteorological challenge.

“The bottom line is we have to do these events, and we’ll do everything we can,” said Cathy Priestner Allinger, managing director of sports for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

That means trucking in snow from distant mountains, if necessary, and using helicopters to dump it on barren ski slopes.

It also means shuffling schedules to push races back a day or two, if necessary. Under one scenario, organizers might even move events from one Utah mountain to another.

“If there was no snow to be found, we’d be in big trouble,” Priestner Allinger said.

There’s one thing Olympic organizers will need that only Mother Nature can provide. If temperatures don’t dip into the 30s or lower, at least overnight, snowmaking equipment will be useless.

The state that boasts of having the greatest snow on Earth would be stuck with the greatest mud on Earth.

“There’s no question we need to have some cold temperatures,” Priestner Allinger said. “If it got up to 70 or 80 degrees for several days, we’d lose the outdoor venues.”

Besides the skiing events, the alpine venues will stage competitions in snowboarding and ski jumping. It’s those sites that warrant the greatest weather concerns.

Bill Alder, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City, said it’s very difficult to forecast the weather so far in advance. Even a one-year prediction is unreliable.

“You wouldn’t want to have a lot of faith in one that far out,” he said. “The 30- to 90-day forecast tend to be more accurate, so by the fall of 2001 we can possibly say what might happen in February 2002.”

Right now, we know this: the Salt Lake area has had unseasonably warm winters for five straight years. Alder said three of the warmest Januarys on record have come in the last five years.

“We’re overdue for a colder-than-normal January,” he said.

He said the current La Nina weather pattern stems from cold water at the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Such conditions produce winter storms in Utah, but not as many as during an El Nino year.

“Utah is always in a hard-to-call area,” Alder said.

Salt Lake residents have enjoyed several 60-degree days this month. While Olympic organizers hope for more favorable conditions two years from now, they promise to be prepared for anything.

“We’ll have a contingency plan for each of the venues, and each of those plans will contain everything from the A-plan to the Z-plan,” Priestner Allinger said.

To demonstrate their resolve, SLOC officials saved the U.S. biathlon championships earlier this month by hauling snow 30 miles from the Uinta Mountains to the Nordic skiing venue at Soldier Hollow.

“That’s why we do test events,” Priestner Allinger said. “It was a great exercise. You don’t plan for it to happen during the Olympics, but it’s good to know it can be done.”

The cost was between $25,000 and $30,000. Priestner Allinger said some of that money paid for grading a bumpy access road so it could handle the parade of heavy dump trucks.

Two World Cup skiing events, one in November and another in February, were scheduled at Olympic venues but were moved out of Utah because there wasn’t enough snow.

The November slalom races at Park City came early in the ski season, and this month’s downhill races at Snowbasin were moved when safety nets couldn’t be properly installed in shallow snow.

However, Snowbasin and other Utah resorts have never closed to recreational skiers this season.

And in the past two weeks, the mountains have received lots of snow, prompting the Super Series ski tour to postpone a day of downhill training.

Priestner Allinger has no concerns about the Snowbasin or Soldier Hollow venues because snowmaking systems weren’t operating when each site faced snow shortages.

“Some venues are still construction sites,” she said. “Down the road, all of them will have advanced snowmaking machines.”

Alder said within the past four years, meteorologists installed weather stations at each outdoor Olympic venue. The stations should help forecasters chart short-range weather patterns.

One outdoor venue shouldn’t be affected. The luge, bobsled and skeleton races will be staged on a refrigerated track that is expected to work fine if temperatures are cool and it doesn’t rain heavily.

That leaves indoor sports like speedskating, hockey, curling and figure skating. Organizers are certain those events will go off without weather-related hitches.

“The rest have roofs,” Priestner Allinger said. “That makes it a lot easier for us.”

Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press