Climate change threat to golf, cricket, football and skiing in the UK

In Depth: new report reveals how extreme weather will impact sports in Britain

St Andrews Old Course climate change impact on UK sports
The Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland is under threat from climate change
(Image credit: David Cannon/Getty Images)

Climate change and the rise in sea levels could have a devastating effect on elite and grassroots sports in the United Kingdom, a new report has revealed.

Published by the Climate Coalition and backed by the Priestley International Centre for Climate (PICC), the report is titled ‘Game changer: how climate change is impacting sports in the UK’ and focuses on four sports: golf, football, skiing and cricket.

The Climate Coalition says that extreme weather is already affecting the UK sports industry. The BBC reports that cricket will be the “hardest hit”, while golf and football face an “unexpected threat”. The Guardian focuses on how snowsports, and in particular the Scottish ski industry, are affected by the mild weather and a lack of regular snowfall.

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The PICC’s Kate Sambrook and Piers Forster wrote in the report: “Cancelled football matches, flooded cricket grounds and golf courses crumbling into the sea: climate change is already impacting our ability to play and watch the sports we love.

“There is growing evidence that the UK is becoming warmer and wetter. During the last 20-30 years, the UK has experienced a rapid increase in extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall, bringing severe flooding in many areas. Six out of the seven wettest years in our history have occurred since 2000.

“Seasonal differences in rainfall mean that different sports are affected in different ways. For football, with fixtures throughout the winter, the main concern is the 26% increase in winter rainfall since 1900. The recent winters of 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 were notable for their record-breaking rainfall, with over 150% more rainfall than normal. The resulting flooding affected sports facilities across the country.

“In a recent study researchers found that climate change made the UK’s record December rainfall in 2015 59% more likely. Future projections by the Met Office indicate that winter rainfall could increase by 70-100% by the 2080s. While there will still be drier years, this suggests that wet winters like the ones we have experienced lately could become more common in the future, increasing the risk of further damaging floods in the UK.”

‘Crumbling’ golf courses across the UK

The threat of wetter winters is a major concern for the UK’s golf industry. Coastal erosion is becoming a “real problem” and the sea-level rise poses the greatest long-term threat to golf in the UK. Some of the most iconic golf courses in the UK are also at risk.

According to the report, more than one in six of Scotland’s 600 golf courses are located on the coast - including the Old Course at St Andrews, Royal Troon and Montrose Golf Links in Angus.

The R&A, the governing body for golf outside the USA and Mexico, recognises the risk of climate change. Steve Isaac, director of sustainability at the R&A, said: “It [climate change] is certainly becoming a factor. Golf is impacted by climate change more than most other sports. Trends associated with climate change are resulting in periods of course closures, even during summer, with disruption seen to some professional tournaments.

“We are witnessing different types and timings of disease, pest and weed outbreaks. The future threats are very real, with course managers having to show adaptation if we are to maintain current standards of course condition. It is something we take very seriously.”

Grassroots football tackles a big challenge

Football’s grassroots level is hit hard by increased rainfall and extreme weather events associated with climate change. According to a past study cited in the Climate Coalition report, grassroots clubs lose five weeks every season due to bad weather - with more than a third losing between two and three months. Some 84% of these clubs highlight facilities as the most pressing issue facing the grassroots game.

While the impacts of weather trends linked to climate change may be felt most at the game’s grassroots, football at a higher level is also exposed, says the report. It said: “Extreme weather events caused the cancellation of 25 Football League fixtures during the 2015/16 season, with Carlisle United’s Brunton Park the most prominent example. The League One side was forced out of its home ground for 49 days by Storm Desmond at a cost of nearly £200,000.”

Cricket hit for six by climate change at all levels

Cricket will be the sport hardest hit by weather changes. “Whether Mumbai, Melbourne, Antigua or Lancashire, cricket is defined almost entirely by the climatic conditions,” the report says. “If they change, so does the essence of the game. Increased rainfall and more extreme weather events are already a factor. Wetter winters and more intense summer downpours are disrupting the game at every level.”

Downhill from here for Scottish ski industry

The report says that the Met Office has warned that the Scottish skiing industry could collapse within as little as 50 years as winters become “too mild for regular snowfall”.

Continuous decreases in snow cover have already been observed over the past 40 years, with three of Scotland’s main resorts spending more than half their operating budgets on artificial snow factories after a particularly bad 2016/17 season. “If these trends continue, disaster looms, with potentially devastating consequences for local economies in the Scottish mountains,” said the report.

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