Impact of wildfires shows sports is going to have to adapt to new reality

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

By 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, smoke drifting south from wildfires in northern Ontario and Quebec had made the view outside my hotel room in Philadelphia a little smudgy, but I could still make out details — windows, balconies, chimneys — on the east bank of the Delaware River.

The outdoor air was far from pristine, but breathable nonetheless. I headed out for a five-kilometre trot, and felt few effects besides a slight scratchiness in my nostrils. A routine allergy-season run.

But by early afternoon, the haze had settled at street level. You could see the smoke in front of you, and smell it when you breathed. Now it tickled my throat. If I had started my run at mid-day, the air would have made my chest burn.

I had just left a boxing gym in Northeast Philly, where athletes, with one eye on their smartphone weather apps, warned each other against training outside in the dirty air. Soon talk turned to the source of the pollution, and the gym banter echoed that old joke from South Park.

Blame Canada.

WATCH | Why are Canada’s wildfires becoming more severe?:

Why are Canada’s wildfires becoming more severe?

There might be fewer wildfires than in recent decades, but they’re getting worse.

The head coach remembered that I had recently arrived from Toronto, and quickly singled me out.

“He’s from Canada!” he shouted, pointing in my direction. “He must have brought all that smoke down here with him!”

I laughed and nodded and played along.

“I heard Philly fighters were tough, and y’all wanted all the smoke,” I answered. “So, yeah, I brought the smoke.”

We laughed some more, but the situation outdoors, in Philadelphia, New York, Toronto and beyond was serious. By Thursday morning in Philadelphia, the Air Quality Index, measured on a 500-point scale, had reached 364. The previous day in New York — 484.

If you need me to tell you, I will.

Those readings mean outdoor exercise fits somewhere along the spectrum between dangerous, unsafe, and merely unwise.

The drifting smoke from those wildfires had forced Major League Baseball to postpone games, and prompted NFL teams to move practices indoors. And if you were an athlete who needed to train outside, you did it at your own risk, or you cancelled your plans.

A baseball stadium is shrouded in a hazy sky because of smoke.
A general view of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia during hazy conditions due to wildfires in Canada on Thursday. (Getty Images)

Weather drama no longer isolated

If the fires die down, or shifting winds push the smoke elsewhere, maybe we can all get back to sports business as usual in a few days. But in the bigger picture, we need to recognize that we have a problem.

This week’s situation is inconvenient. Baseball fans who had come to the east coast to watch their teams play in New York or Philadelphia either missed games or had to recalibrate travel plans. The teams themselves now face the prospect of make-up games. None of it is ideal.

And the meteorological drama isn’t isolated. We’re used to rescheduling games because of bad local weather, but how often does the action stop because of something happening thousands of kilometres away?

Not very.

But when we pull the camera back, it looks increasingly like the sports world’s climate change-warped future is no longer the future. It’s the present. The question isn’t whether we’re living through it. Check the list of postponed events. Change is here.

The question is: How will the sports world adjust to this new reality?

As of Monday, wildfires were burning every province and territory in Canada. The blazes were evidence of a summer flare-up for sure, but, as researchers pointed out, the fires this spring also fit into a bigger pattern.

“Over the last 20 years, we have never seen such a large area burned so early in the season,” said Yan Boulanger, a researcher with Natural Resources Canada, in an interview with Reuters. “Partially because of climate change, we’re seeing trends toward increasing burned area throughout Canada.”

The specific wildfires that warped this week’s pro sports schedule are currently burning in northern Ontario and Quebec. By Wednesday they had produced so much smoke, carried south along an atmospheric corridor jammed between two adjacent weather systems, that big-time sports outfits could no longer ignore the hazard.

Wednesday’s Phillies-Tigers game in Philadelphia was postponed over poor air quality, and bumped to Thursday, which had originally been both teams’ day off. A night game in New York City between the Yankees and visiting Chicago White Sox was postponed Wednesday, and the teams are now slated to play a doubleheader on Thursday. In Brooklyn, the New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx called off their regular season matchup, scheduled for Wednesday night at the Barclays Center.

Locally, the lingering smoke prompted the Blue Jays to close the roof at the Rogers Centre ahead of their game against the Houston Astros on Wednesday, while a harness racing card set for Thursday at Woodbine Mohawk Park was pushed back to next week.

All of this upheaval comes six months after a FIFA World Cup that took place in late autumn because midsummer heat in the host nation, Qatar, would have made high-level soccer impossible.

Pictured is the ski hill that hosts World Cup alpine races in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
A lack of snow in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany forced the cancellation of a men’s downhill and giant slalom in January. (Millo Moravski/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

And it is unfolding 16 months after a Winter Olympics whose outdoor events all occurred on manufactured snow. Local organizers, convinced that the Beijing’s winter weather wouldn’t provide enough snow, needed 49 million gallons of water to cover ski slopes and snowboard runs. That’s enough drinking water to keep one million gallon-per-day drinking fitness bros hydrated for seven weeks, and can supply normal people’s water needs for three months.

But the World Cup and Winter Olympics are global mega events, whose organizers spent years plotting ways to fit their events around the new reality climate change is creating. This week we’re watching pro leagues wrestle with extreme weather in real time, and finding answers on the fly presents a different problem.

Postponements are the simplest short-term solution, they’re not perfect.

What happens if the next set of wildfires renders urban air unbreathable for a week, and not just a day?

How does back-loading the schedule with make-up games affect player health? If you’re a veteran baseball player at a demanding position, will you knees forgive you for that late-season doubleheader?

And if climate change is making wildfires more likely and weather less predictable, how close are we to phasing out open-air stadiums for deep-pocketed pro sports teams?

A generation away? Maybe two?

Seems far-fetched, but to younger sports fans, the idea of outdoor long-track Olympic speed skating might also seem outlandish. Now the whole sport is indoors and it doesn’t matter if the outdoor temperature warms to 10C in February. For speed skating, climate control protects against inclement weather.

And now, changes are looming for other outdoor pro sports, too.

Climate change isn’t negotiable. It’s happening.

Beyond that, it’s a choice.

Behaviour change or schedule change.

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