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Originally published February 27, 2010 at 10:31 PM | Page modified February 28, 2010 at 12:17 AM

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Weather issues will soon become Sochi's problem

"Putting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi, they're picking two very marginal winter cities," said Simon Donner, a University of British Columbia professor who is an expert on climate change and environmental policy. In Vancouver, "the cherry trees are blooming on my street six weeks early." And the temperature in Sochi Saturday? A high of 57 degrees and a low of 44.

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Top three. For Canada's elite athletes with a disability, many of whom had cruised through earlier Paralympics with little outside pressure, the 2010 Games definitely ratcheted up the expectation level. And it was accomplished with a terrific final weekend.

9:54 PM Mar 21 from
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The 2010 Paralympics, breaking new records in attendance and visibility around the world, closed out in a flash of colour and patriotism Sunday night as athletes from around the world gathered under a basketball court-sized Canadian flag and wished the Games goodbye.

9:39 PM Mar 21 from
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An exhausted John Furlong said Sunday he is happy the arduous road to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Paralympics is virtually over. Looking wan and tired, and occasionally downcast, Furlong told reporters at a closing press conference his energetic "blue jackets" -- the volunteer backbone of two remarkable Games -- may wish for another week of fun, but he certainly doesn't.

9:38 PM Mar 21 from
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Top three. For Canada's elite athletes with a disability, many of whom had cruised through earlier Paralympics with little outside pressure, the 2010 Games definitely ratcheted up the expectation level. And it was accomplished with a terrific final weekend.

7:22 PM Mar 21 from
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When wheelchair athlete Chantal Petitclerc won 10 gold medals combined at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Summer Games, she was reserved a star on Canada's Walk of Fame. So where does that place skier Lauren Woolstencroft - who earned at least half a star with five golds at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games?

4:53 PM Mar 21 from
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Results from the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games at Vancouver/Whistler.

4:48 PM Mar 21 from
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Results from the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games at Vancouver/Whistler.

4:43 PM Mar 21 from
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When wheelchair athlete Chantal Petitclerc won 10 gold medals combined at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Summer Games, she was reserved a star on Canada's Walk of Fame. So where does that place skier Lauren Woolstencroft - who earned at least half a star with five golds at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games?

4:21 PM Mar 21 from
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Youth was served in the gold-medal final of Paralympic sledge hockey. Yet it was the game itself, still in its relative infancy in terms of development, that was the big winner after a terrific set of playoff-round games at UBC's Thunderbird Arena.

3:52 PM Mar 21 from
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Canada's Brian McKeever clinched a golden hat trick Sunday, after taking a gamble and using skate skis in the one-kilometre classic Nordic sprint at Whistler Paralympic Park.

3:50 PM Mar 21 from

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Is the weather our friend or foe?

That question came up daily during a Winter Olympics held in a city where most Canadians go to avoid cold.

The same might be asked about the Winter Games four years from now in Sochi, Russia, a resort on the Black Sea that, like Vancouver, has a temperate marine climate.

"Putting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi, they're picking two very marginal winter cities," said Simon Donner, a University of British Columbia professor who is an expert on climate change and environmental policy. In Vancouver, "the cherry trees are blooming on my street six weeks early."

And the temperature in Sochi Saturday? A high of 57 degrees and a low of 44.

The next-to-last day of competition in Vancouver on Saturday was symbolic for some of the havoc weather conditions have played during the Games.

Sleet and fog obscured ski runs for the men's slalom at the higher altitude of Whistler. At the lower elevation at Cypress, site of the men's snowboard parallel giant slalom, Canadian gold medalist Jasey Jay Anderson said conditions made it feel like "you're swimming all day. You can't see anything."

Swedish skier Anja Paerson said after the women's slalom competition on Friday, "This Olympics has been all about the weather."

At Whistler and Cypress, several events were delayed because of weather. Closer to the city, snow had to be trucked in to Cypress Mountain, carefully covered with tarps and chopped up by hand.

Earlier this week, Vancouver Organizing Committee spokeswoman Renee Smith-Valade said weather challenges have "pushed us to the very limits of our creativity."

Staging the remaining events at Cypress "will require a gold-medal performance by the staff," she said.

Looking further ahead, climate change is making weather patterns even more unstable around the world. Conditions vary from year to year, but the trend is that cold winters are less likely in many places.

"As a climate scientist, I rolled my eyes when they picked a city on the Black Sea," said Donner, about the selection of Sochi for the 2014 Games. "I'm pretty certain it never snows in the city. They grow palm trees there."

The changes have thrown new hurdles into operating ski facilities and training for athletes.

For example, climate change poses serious risks to the snow reliability of ski areas in the Alps, which had the warmest November on record four years ago, and consequently to the regional economies that depend upon winter tourism, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned in a study four years ago.

Germany's warming trends could lead to a 60 percent decrease in the number of naturally snow-reliable ski areas, the report said.

Donner said the kind of warm winter Vancouver has experienced this year is typical of the patterns the Pacific Northwest can expect.

Regular skiing at lower elevations ski resorts like Cypress, which at nearly 3,000 feet is about the same altitude of Snoqualmie Pass, is sounding like a thing of the past.

"It doesn't mean this winter is caused by climate change, but it was a pretty good sneak preview," Donner said. "If I'm a ski operator making plans for 50 years form now, I'm not that confident of having a base every winter."

Russian organizers of the Sochi Games said they're already preparing for such challenges. Alpine venues are being constructed about 30 miles from Sochi in the Caucasus Mountains, at elevations higher than Whistler.

"We will be applying innovative technological solutions to make sure the competitions are absolutely fine," said Dmitry Chernyshenko, CEO of the Sochi Games.

Those include snow-making systems and extra snow-storage activities.

John Furlong, the head of Vancouver's organizing committee, had some advice for them, after struggling through the warmest January on record.

"This kind of thing can happen," he said. "You have to manage the best you can."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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