Future of famed Dutch speed skating race in doubt due to climate change

A Dutch meteorologist tells 60 Minutes why there is a less than a 10% chance the Elfstedentocht ever happens again.

Elfstedentocht's future in jeopardy

Since 1909, one sporting event trumps the rest in The Netherlands – the Elfstedentocht.

Each winter millions of people across the Netherlands hope temperatures drop enough to freeze the 125-mile network of canals in the Friesland providence.

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Bill Whitaker takes us to Europe to learn about the Elfstedentocht.

"To the Dutch, this race is like the Super Bowl, the NBA championship, the World Series all rolled into one," Whitaker tells 60 Minutes Overtime.

The 11-city race attracts professional skaters and amateurs alike. They compete for glory and pride. No prize is money is awarded to the winner.

About 33,000 people have signed up to participate in the next Elfstedentocht. Some of them have been waiting since 1997, the last time the race took place.

ot-elstedentochth.jpg
Elfstedentocht in 1997

In order for the Elfstedentocht to occur, the ice needs to be at least six inches thick throughout the entire course. According to Hisso Homan, a meteorologist for the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, reaching that ice thickness takes two weeks of severe frost. Homan is the national meteorologist responsible for tracking weather trends and alerting race organizers when a cold front develops in the Artic and is tracking toward The Netherlands.

There is no designated day for the Elfstedentocht. It takes place when the conditions are cold enough. When Homan sees freezing temperatures coming, he notifies the race organizers who stop the water from circulating in the canals. Still, water allows the ice to form faster.

In 2012, the Elfstedentocht nearly happened, but a last-minute snowfall and subsequent warm weather caused a portion of the ice to melt. The wait continued.

Homan says climate change might prevent the Elfstedentocht from ever happening again.

"When world temperatures are rising and they are rising even more quickly in this area of the world, the chances of having enough frost are declining," Homan said. "It is a possibility that there won't be …[another Elfstedentocht]. There is still a chance. It's a very small one and it's getting smaller every year."

Meteorologist Homan believes the chances of another Elfstedentocht taking place in The Netherlands between 5% and 8%.

The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.