Whistler-Blackcomb taking steps to adapt to, mitigate climate change 

Climate change is "a significant concern for us," says Arthur De Jong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager for Whistler-Blackcomb.

De Jong, who was a member of the National Ski Areas Association task force that developed an environmental charter for member ski areas about four years ago, has been observing visible signs of warmer temperatures in the Whistler area since the late 1980s.

"The glaciers in Garibaldi Park are about half the size they were 100 years ago," De Jong notes, "and glaciers are the most sensitive gauge of temperature change."

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is also shrinking. But unlike surrounding glaciers, the size of the Horstman Glacier has an immediate and quantifiable impact on Whistler-Blackcomb’s bottom line. Virtually every square inch of the glacier’s surface is used by ski and snowboard camps in the summer. As the glacier shrinks, so does revenue from summer camps.

To fight shrinkage, Whistler-Blackcomb is taking steps this winter to maintain the glacier. Snowmaking guns will be making snow on the alpine ice field and snow fences will be used to catch blowing snow and build up the winter snow cover.

Radar was used to measure the depth of the glacier last month, at its lowest point in the year. The depth will be measured throughout the winter to determine how much snow needs to be "added" to keep the glacier at a size that will allow all the summer camps to continue.

This winter’s program to maintain the size of the Horstman Glacier is part of Whistler-Blackcomb’s two-pronged approach, which includes measures to adapt to climate change and measures to mitigate climate change.

"We believe it’s happening and it’s a threat, to our business and to society at large," De Jong says.

Summer grooming of runs, increased snowmaking and opening up additional high alpine terrain are some of the other ways Whistler-Blackcomb is adapting to climate change.

"The Flute decision is an example," De Jong says of this summer’s announcement that the Flute basin will become part of the controlled ski area. "The decision to open up Flute was based on the operating conditions of today, market conditions, climate conditions…

"In the future, climate change may force us to Flute; we may need more high alpine terrain because the bottom part of the mountains may be less skiable."

Most of Whistler-Blackcomb’s efforts towards mitigating climate change are based on reducing energy consumption and increasing energy efficiency. Whistler-Blackcomb’s fleet of snow grooming machines is one of its biggest consumers of fuel. Like most vehicles the company uses, the groomers are leased, so when new technology becomes available Whistler-Blackcomb gets it very quickly. Two years ago the groomer manufacturer introduced fuel injection, which increased energy efficiency by nearly 20 per cent.

Whistler-Blackcomb will also be researching wind-generated energy this winter. No decision has been made on the run-of-river hydro project which was proposed for Fitzsimmons Creek a couple of years ago. The hydro project has been complicated by the Olympic bobsleigh/luge track on Blackcomb.

"It’s important we find ways of generating green energy within our operating footprint," De Jong says.

What the future brings as far as climate change is concerned is impossible to predict. Based on records from the last 100 years De Jong says average temperatures on the coast have increased about .5 C. The impact inland has been greater, with average temperatures in the Rockies increasing about 2 C.

"The coast appears to be in a more moderate pocket of global warming," De Jong says. But even a 1 C change would be significant.

Whistler-Blackcomb has done some modelling projections based on a 1 C increase in average temperature and feels it could adapt. For example, snow might run out at the 1,000 metre elevation, rather than extend right to the valley. The Olympic Station on Whistler Mountain, which is at 1,019 metres elevation, would then become the new "bottom" of the ski zone.

But making predictions about climate change based on what has happened in the past is as much art as science. And as De Jong points out, climate change is much more than a business issue.

"Anecdotally, you can see the mid-mountain lakes are changing colour, the treeline is moving. Locally, nature is telling us it’s warming."


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