Playing ball with a changing climate

Baseball fans in Washington are abuzz over the Nationals’ World Series victory over the Houston Astros, which featured the First Fall Classic games played in the nation’s capital since 1933.

However, a lot of things about the city and the game have changed in the past 86 years, and with the increased threat of floods and other climate-related impacts, there’s reason to expect a World Series 80 or so years from now could face even greater effects. From logistics, to playing conditions, to fan comfort, climate and weather have big impacts on the sports we enjoy and how teams and governments determine spending priorities.

The World Series is known as the Fall Classic, and it’s often played in much colder conditions than regular-season games. But just two years ago, unseasonably high temperatures of greater than 100 degrees in Los Angeles were a major story line for the World Series between the Dodgers and the Astros.

So what might a World Series in Washington around the year 2100 look like, and what would a baseball team and city planners need to think about to get ready?

A big consideration is the state of Nationals Park, built in 2008 near the Anacostia River. Washington’s games in the 1933 World Series were played at Griffith Stadium, built in the early 20th Century. Like many ballparks of that era, it became obsolete and was torn down. But city leaders might want the current stadium, the anchor of an entertainment district, to last into the next century.

Washington is in a part of the country that has seen a 71 percent increase in heavy precipitation events since 1958, and the Anacostia River is a tidal river that will rise with the seas, by between 4 and 6.5 feet by the end of the century. The ballpark and surrounding businesses on the waterfront are vulnerable to flooding from more rainfall and a rising river. Some projections even put the entire ballpark area underwater by 2100 if the West Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt at its current pace. The World Series also falls during the Atlantic hurricane season, and data from the city and the Army Corps of Engineers show a storm surge could inundate many parts of the city, including the ballpark area.

Other teams are already considering climate change and potential impacts in planning for new stadiums. In Oakland, the Athletics are looking to build a new waterfront stadium and performing extensive studies on how to protect it from projected sea-level rise.

In Arlington, Texas, the Rangers have determined the summer heat is too high to keep playing games outdoors at Globe Life Park, a $191 million stadium that opened in 1994. Next season, they’ll move next door into Globe Life Field, a retractable-roof, air-conditioned stadium that cost $1.2 billion, including $500 million from Arlington taxpayers.

Excessive heat isn’t a problem unique to the United States or baseball. Faced with outdoor temperatures of 116 degrees F and higher for the 2022 World Cup, government of Qatar is spending at least $7 billion to air condition its outdoor soccer stadiums for the international tournament. The desert country already air conditions cafes and other outdoor spaces (an expensive solution that is challenging to scale up elsewhere without dramatically adding to greenhouse gas emissions).

In Japan, site of the 2020 Olympics, the marathon is being moved from host city Tokyo to Sapporo, which once hosted the winter games, over fears that conditions will be too hot for runners.

Back in the United States, climate change will likely be a factor in future seasons or a possible work stoppage. Major League Baseball is studying factors behind an increasing number of rainouts and other inclement weather early in the season, as well as climate projections showing the trend increasing. This affects the scheduling of games, the timing of rain makeups, travel, and other factors in its collective bargaining agreement with players, which expires after the 2020 season. If the owners and players union can’t reach a new one, the games will stop. Potential solutions include shifting the bulk of the early-season games to warmer cities in the South and West, pushing opening day back to later in the year, shortening the season altogether, and pushing for more ballparks with retractable roofs.

Climate change might even have an effect on individual games and at-bats. One hypothesis about a surge in home runs this past season points to the cork at the center of every ball. The cork’s physical properties have changed due to decreased rainfall in the region of North Africa where the cork is harvested. Other studies show changes in humidity in some regions may affect the ball’s inertia once it’s hit. All major league teams are now required to store baseballs in air-conditioned rooms until game time.

There’s been a trend in baseball to replace or supplement old-fashioned scouting techniques with advanced analytics of statistics and performance trends. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Ivy League whiz kids who run the game these days need to consider more than spin rates, launch angles and projected wins above replacement. The threat of extreme weather and other climate impacts is causing them to redesign expensive stadiums, adjust game times and locations, and even analyze how baseballs themselves are constructed. By doing so, they can ensure that future generations of baseball fans can enjoy a timeless, traditional sport for years to come, no matter how long their city’s World Series drought.