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Too wet, too rainy

How climate change could end the ski business for many B.C. resorts

If, on a bluebird day about 15 millennia ago, you had stood on any summit overlooking Vancouver, you would have come eye level with a blanket of ice soaring 1.5 kilometres into the sky.  

If you watched long enough, you might notice signs of a frozen world already fading—a rivulet of water at your feet, a thundering crack below you.  

A trigger, likely a natural drift in the planet’s orbit around the sun, had launched a great melt. Ice sheets that had gripped most of North America, Europe and Asia were retreating to their alpine and Arctic sources. 

A few thousand years earlier, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet had spilled from British Columbia’s mountain ranges, covering nearly the entire province. Now, its edge was pulling back from the continental shelf. As it slipped over Vancouver Island, huge chunks cleaved into the Salish Sea, choking it with icebergs. From the Interior, ice dams plugging the largest lake in the province burst, sending a biblical-sized flood down the Fraser Valley. 

The world was opening up.

On B.C.’s south coast, the heavy ice had sunk the continent into the Earth’s upper mantle, raising sea levels hundreds of metres higher than today; but on the north coast, that weight created an offshore bulge of ice-free land, where humans and open forests were penned into now underwater refuges. As the walls of ice retreated, those people—along with soon-to-be-extinct imperial mammoths, ground sloth and giant bison—filled a barren landscape emerging from a long winter. 

“It would have been pretty spectacular,” says geologist John Clague, picturing the scene atop a 1,450-metre peak at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort. “I would have loved to be a fly on Mount Strachan.” 

In a geological wink, global temperatures warmed by as much as 8 C, setting the stage for the rise of farming, city-building and 10,000 years of human civilization. But while humans flourished, the pattern was clear—it would not last forever. The planet was slowly cooling again.  

“We should be seeing a gradual slide into the next glaciation,” Clague said. “We should be, but we’re not.”  

Ski hills an early climate casualty 

Eduardo Huertas stayed for the snow. A Spanish-American who had spent most of his life floating between the U.S. and Europe, Vancouver was an escape from a personal life that had collapsed around him. An oceanside city crowned with three ski resorts—for him, it embodied freedom, a life with one foot “on the verge of civilization.” 

“It’s not as good as I thought it’d be,” he recently told me as we creaked to the summit of Mount Strachan on Sky Chair, an old two-seater lift.   

Below us, a steep run caught between two groves of conifers was bathed in ice.  

The marginal conditions were the latest in an unpredictable season. November rains had brought devastating floods to the province, and when they lifted, so too did the snow line. On Dec. 3, unseasonably warm temperatures—including a Canadian record of 22.5 C in the town of Penticton—prompted Environment Canada to warn of flooding across the province as snowpacks melted.  

To get snow on B.C.’s coastal mountains requires the right mix of storm systems tracking in from the North Pacific and cold outbursts of arctic air.  

But as the planet heats up, that mix is threatened. Mountains lying closest to the ocean will be the first to feel the impacts of weakened arctic air and the growing influence of a warming ocean. 

The atmospheric rivers that hit B.C. last fall are more common south of the U.S. border, where winters begin later and snowpack is already disappearing,  

As Faron Anslow, a climate scientist with the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC), put it to me, as climate change advances, “California is kind of creeping to the north.”  

Snow will still fall. Over Christmas last year, the temperature dropped, piling thick drifts of powder snow on Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, only to later melt in over a week of rain. By mid-February, what was supposed to be the height of the ski season, little snow had fallen in weeks.  

Such swings in climate extremes will only become more entrenched in the coming decades, says Anslow. 

Fifteen thousand years after the North Shore mountains emerged from a sea of ice, its ski resorts are poised to be among the first casualties in another climate tipping point. 

The end of winter as we know it? 

The 2015 ski season was one many British Columbians have tried to forget. At Whistler Blackcomb, crews blasted the Horstman Glacier with snow guns in an attempt to slow its decline; at Cypress Mountain, resort operators cobbled together an absurdly thin winding path of snow before closing altogether in February. 

“It was the worst season they’ve ever seen,” said Michael Pidwirny, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. 

It was also a season that got the climate scientist questioning what was coming next. Scientists generally agree greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the world 1.2 C since 1880. But when Pidwirny pulled 118 years of mean winter temperature data at Cypress Mountain, he found an “obvious warming trend” of 1.5 C. 

“If Cypress had seen 25 per cent more warming than the global average, how was it going to survive into the future?” questioned Pidwirny and his graduate students Ethan Clark and Kalim Bahbahani. 

In a study presented to the American Geophysical Union, the three researchers modelled future climate across 154 resorts across Western North America, later honing in on 12 B.C. resorts, from Vancouver Island to the Rocky Mountains.  

The result: dozens of British Columbia’s ski hills face precipitous drops in snowfall over the coming decades as a warming Pacific Ocean warps regional weather patterns. 

The heaviest future snowfall declines lie near the coast, where maritime influences are expected to turn snow to rain. At ski hills like Mount Washington, Cypress and Sasquatch Mountain Resort near Chilliwack, a worst-case emissions scenario would lead to mean temperatures crossing the zero-Celsius threshold by mid-century. 

By then, Pidwirny’s modelling suggests the 2015 season will become the average—meaning from year to year, half of future seasons are predicted to be even warmer. 

Describing mountain climate as “the canary in the coal mine,” Pidwirny is among many scientists warning of the cascading impacts a disappearing snowpack could have on a long list of species that rely on the cool waters to live through the summer—not least of all, humans. 

But snow is also the essential ingredient for a ski industry that generates billions of dollars per year. The researchers’ projections spell the potential end of a way of life for thousands of coastal British Columbians who take the mantra “hit the slopes and beach in one day” seriously.  

“For the coastal resorts, by 2050, it’ll be really hard to have a sustainable ski business,” said Pidwirny. “There’ll be so many years where it’s just too warm and too wet, too rainy to ski.” 

A race to adapt

What are resorts doing about it?  

Glacier Media contacted six coastal resorts in southwestern British Columbia to understand how they are planning to survive increasingly mild winters.

Two coastal resorts, at Cypress and Mount Seymour, said they have heavily invested in snowmaking equipment and off-season run grooming to make up for dwindling snowfall projected over the coming decades. 

Over the past five years, Mount Seymour has spent the off-season dumping at least 3,000 truckloads of dirt on ski runs to smooth out the surface below. That allows it to operate with “significantly less snow,” Seymour Mountain spokesperson Simon Whitehead told Glacier Media in an email. 

“We have diversified, and will continue to diversify, to allow Mt. Seymour Resort to operate year-round,” he said. 

Cypress Mountain Ski Resort took on a new look last summer, after the resort opened a 1.7-kilometre-long “mountain coaster.” Whipping visitors through forested vistas at 40 kilometres per hour, it has been billed as Canada’s longest. 

Last summer, the resort made ski runs “look like a golf course” so it could open without much snow. It has also added 15 more snow guns this season to boost snowmaking capacity by 40 per cent on Mount Strachan, the tallest of its three peaks. 

“With the right temperature, we can go from green to white overnight. And with a few days of snowmaking can get ski runs open,” said Joffrey Koeman, Cypress Mountain Resort’s director of sales and marketing.  

When asked what threshold will make a winter business impossible at Seymour, Whitehead said “there are too many variables” and it’s “impossible to say.”  

Experts are divided over just how far snowmaking can delay increasingly impoverished winters. 

Daniel Scott, a professor of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo, is among a small group of researchers looking to understand the winners and losers of a ski industry on the brink of an existential crisis. 

At the global level, he recently found that if carbon output follows today’s trend, Sapporo, Japan, would be the only city out of 21 past Winter Olympic hosts that could hold a reliable, safe and fair Games again by the end of the century. By the 2050s, a returning Olympic big in Vancouver would mean facing marginal conditions, including February rain and wet snow up to half the time.

One thing that is predictable: a 100-per-cent chance of machine-made snow.

In 2014, roughly 80 per cent of snow for the Sochi, Russia Games was artificial. In Pyeongchang, South Korea, the percentage rose past 90 per cent. This year’s games in Beijing, China, has pushed the manufacturing of Olympic snow to a new high: early competitions relied on 100 per cent fake snow. 

Scott says snowmaking can go a long way to keeping mountains open even through marginal conditions. But the conditions must be right. Whereas snowflakes form from water vapour in the air, snowmaking machines, or snow guns, pump vast amounts of water through high-pressured nozzles. 

A traditional snow gun is hooked up to two hoses, one feeding it water from a series of underground pipes, and another compressed air. The high-pressured air then atomizes the water molecules as they cool and get blasted into the air. Other snow guns use fans instead of compressed air. 

Temperature matters and the threshold for efficient snowmaking is around -5 C, though chemical or biological additives can provide a larger buffer closer to 0 C. In the end, what falls aren’t perfect snowflakes but icy granules closer in appearance to salt than a fresh dusting of powdery snow. 

In places like Beijing, scarce water and less than green energy sources raise a number of questions over the sustainability of making snow. But in places like B.C. or Quebec, Scott says vast reserves of hydroelectricity and relatively abundant water sources make the process more viable. 

“You could double or triple the snowmaking and it will mean nothing in terms of carbon emissions,” said Scott.

When do the operating costs of making double the snow stop making sense? Only the companies running ski resorts can answer that question, said Scott. When Glacier Media asked, neither Seymour nor Cypress Mountain ski resorts had any projections showing how far snowfalls would need to decline before snowmaking couldn’t keep up.

A spokesperson for Mount Washington, Grouse and Sasquatch resorts—among those expected to be hardest hit—did not respond to questions from Glacier Media. 

Temperature and cost aren’t the only limiting factors. The ability to blast runs with human-made snow is also affected by how much moisture is in the air, noted Pidwirny, who is skeptical of putting too much faith in snowmaking.  

“[Scott] thinks that we can solve all our problems by snowmaking,” Pidwirny said. “It’s easy to make snow when it doesn’t snow much or doesn’t precipitate much out east. But in these warmer years that I’m talking about in the future… there will be this threshold that you hit.  

“Snowmaking just doesn’t work anymore if there are too many warm, wet days.” 

Without major global emission reductions, by the 2080s, efforts to cling to a fast-disappearing winter season will almost certainly fall short, said the UBC researcher. 

“Those areas are for sure finished,” said Pidwirny. “I see all the ski resorts in Western Canada just putting their head in the sand like an ostrich. They’re trying to, you know, ‘let’s not talk about it. Maybe it’s not going to happen.’” 

As the ski lift climbed higher, I thought about the message climate scientist Faron Anslow left me with earlier that day. 

“When we get these warm maritime atmospheric river events,” he had said, “only the highest mountains are going to see snow.” 

The summit of Mount Strachan came into focus. There was no ice shelf, no thick dump of powder—just the steady whir of the old German machinery. 

Huertas and I shifted out of our seats. Our skis and snowboard crunched down an icy ramp.  

Below us it was night. The surrounding mountains were bathed in darkness, but the resort’s twin peaks glowed under fluorescent lighting, a spectacular sight framed by Metro Vancouver’s nightscape flickering into the horizon.  

“What a place to live,” said Huertas.

B.C. ski hills that survive global warming could reap tourism windfall, says expert

By many metrics, the future of the global ski industry looks grim. 

A high-carbon future would largely wipe out all 99 ski areas in the American Midwest by late century; across Quebec, Ontario and the northeastern corner of the U.S., only 29 out of 171 ski resorts are projected to survive. Out west, places like California, where water sources to make snow are limited, will get “clobbered” in the same way the European Alps will lose out, calculated Daniel Scott, who studies the intersection of tourism and climate change at the University of Waterloo.

“There are winners and losers with each one,” said Scott. 

Places like Quebec will be among the winners, said the climate researcher, as ski hills in neighbouring Ontario suffer under the warming effects of the Great Lakes. What will happen in British Columbia? Scott declined to share details of his research on Western North America, which has yet to be published.

But according to Michael Pidwirny, a climate scientist from the University of British Columbia Okanagan, his projections suggest coastal mountains—including Mount Washington, Cypress Bowl, Grouse Mountain, Mount Seymour and Hemlock—will face steep declines in snowfall by mid-century. That will inevitably challenge their very existence as a winter resort, he said.

B.C.’s Interior will face even more warming than coastal regions. But with already cold winters and longer seasons, resorts like Lake Louise and Big White will remain viable well into the future, according to an unpublished study Pidwirny conducted across 12 B.C. ski hills.

As resorts face diminished snowfall, Scott and Pidwirny agree even operators with the deepest annual snowpacks need to start asking themselves how they will adapt.

‘We will take the market share’

Glacier Media contacted 34 ski resorts in B.C. to understand how operators are planning to adapt to a changing climate and the diminishing snowfall that comes with it. 

At Big White outside of Kelowna, management monitors 10-year snowfall averages but is still discussing how it is going to adapt to warmer, wetter winters, according to marketing director Michael J. Ballingall. 

“We know we will take market share away from those who don’t have snow. People will keep skiing wherever they can,” he said. 

Buried deep in the Rocky Mountains north of Prince George, owner and manager of Powder King Mountain Resort Jim Salisbury said he hasn’t done any official modelling for the mountain. But anecdotally, he said, the resort used to average 20 metres of snow a year; now, it averages just over 12. 

“We get the arctic outflows, we get the Pacific influence and you know, we’re just blessed here. I mean, a bad year here at Powder King is still a good year,” he said, describing his mountain as a 200-year operation in a fortunate spot. “If we don’t get snow, the whole world’s got bigger problems going on.” 

SilverStar Mountain Resort’s Ian Jenkins said he is focused on reducing emissions and limiting the resort’s impact on the local environment. It is a message echoed by most of the ski resorts Glacier Media surveyed across B.C.  

Another thing they have in common: nearly all the larger ski hills surveyed said they were expanding off-season activities to make up for any future drops in snowfall.  

‘THINKING WAY OUTSIDE THE BOX’

Only a few kilometres from the U.S. border, the resort at Baldy Mountain climbs out of the southern reaches of the Okanagan Valley. Promoted as a place “Where the world can’t see you, but you can see the world,” Baldy’s lifts reach an altitude of over 2,100 metres, making it among the highest resorts in B.C. But that hasn’t stopped its operators from moving ahead with plans to adapt to any potential drop in snowfall over the coming decades.  

Troy Lucas, who helps manage the resort, told Glacier Media the mountain avoids snowmaking and the huge volume of water it uses. Instead, he said they are looking to create an elaborate system of lightweight, movable fences that—properly shaded and insulated—could capture enough snowdrifts to cover the resorts over 55 kilometres of trail.  

By design, the resort’s runs sit idle two days a week. Marketed as “Powder Thursdays,” the weekly skiing sabbatical doubles as a built-in safety net for snow accumulation. 

“We’re thinking way outside the box,” Lucas said. 

Baldy Mountain Resort is also working to become a year-round business, opening up the hill to mountain biking, camping, frisbee golf and even farming. For the first time last year, the mountain opened to summer visitors, turning on lifts and offering hikers access to a wide network of trails; and in July, “Baldy Beach” kicked off, an event bringing people together through horseshoes, a s’mores pit and volleyball.  

Despite the plan to diversify, Lucas said the resort has not engaged with any long-term snowfall models for the mountain. And its five-year plan does not account for any drops in snowfall. 

CHRISTMAS SEASON AT RISK

Ski hill operators in more secluded parts of the province say expanding summer operations is not possible without more money or better access to tourism.  

“I don’t know if we have anything in our toolkit,” said Hildur Sinclair, the second-generation owner-operator of Troll Ski Resort near Quesnel, one of the first bumps on the west side of the Caribou Mountains.  

“We don’t make snow. We groom things as low as we can. We mow our hill so we don’t need as much snow… That’s about all we can do.” 

Sinclair said she remembers deep freezes when her parents ran the resort. But in the last 20 years, she said winters have warmed, with the lowest temperatures shifting later in the season and impacting peak sales over Christmas.  

The holiday season is a make-or-break time of year for ski hills around the world, said Scott. Most resorts do 25 per cent of their business over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Miss that, and a mountain will have financial problems they will never catch up to for the rest of the season, said the expert on climate change and tourism. 

Sinclair’s solution has been to cater to local skiers and snowboarders. That loyal customer base has helped the resort come through shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed.  

Now, she’s in talks with Alpine Canada to move their training from the Coast Range into more consistent climes. 

“They are concerned about where they are going to train. They are looking to the Interior,” she said.   

B.C.’s MEGA RESORT AT A CROSSROADS 

Somewhere between the destinies of B.C.’s coastal and Interior mountains lies Whistler Blackcomb. With three climatic zones and a global brand, it is the biggest and most profitable resort in the province. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, at least a quarter of B.C.’s foreign tourist dollars were spent at the resort village. In the past, that money has offered a significant source of public dollars, bringing in $1.37 million in tax revenue every day, according to a 2016 economic planning report

It’s an economic engine built on snow, but one that could soon be sputtering. 

By mid-century, the annual average temperature in the Whistler region is projected to warm by about 3 C. Snow will continue to fall at upper elevations, but skiing into the village could become impossible as the annual snowpack drops by up to a metre, according to a report from the University of Victoria’s Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC)

In what PCIC scientists describe as a “remarkable” confluence of climate change at one location, Whistler will face more heavy rain, milder winters and more summer drought. By the end of the century, Pidwirny projects Whistler Blackcomb’s mean winter temperature could resemble the average climatic conditions at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort between 1971 and 2000. 

A spokesperson for Vail Resorts, the ski conglomerate that owns Whistler Blackcomb, said “We’re not preparing for more or less snowfall; we are preparing for more change.” 

“That said, across our resorts, we are seeing a higher variability in conditions, especially in the early season,” corporate communications manager Marjory Elwell said in an email. Vail Resorts, added Elwell, is ramping up snowmaking to adapt to a changing climate. ​

​Adapting to a rising snow line has meant building lifts at higher elevations into “future snow zones,” Whistler Councillor Arthur De Jong told Glacier Media.  

“We don’t build ski areas anymore. We build four-season mountain resorts. The dynamics of tourism have changed,” he said. “People want to be in mountains more to walk, to hike, to simply be in nature.” 

Or to mountain bike—Whistler’s 200-kilometre network of trails has become big draw in recent decades, bringing in millions of dollars in the off-season.

Ultimately, conglomerates like Vail Resorts—which has a pass program in place at ski hills across North America, Australia, Canada and Japan—are banking on a membership model where skiers can buy one pass and access multiple resorts should their closest hill suffer a snowless year.   

If one season, Whistler is starved of snow, pass holders can simply fly to Colorado, the thinking goes. It’s a proposition some experts say completely ignores the reality of both a changing climate and market conditions. Scott expects that over the coming three years, publicly traded ski operators like Vail Resorts will have to disclose the level of risk climate change poses to their businesses.  

“The challenge for that is the Whistlers of the world are international destinations. You’ve got people flying from New York, Austria, Japan,” he said, pointing to the lack of green alternatives in aviation. “There’s no technology for that now. There won’t be by mid-century and so that’s a part of the carbon puzzle.” 

​Over the course of nearly four decades, De Jong has risen from a teenager working with Blackcomb Ski Patrol to occupy Vail Mountain resort’s role of senior manager of mountain planning and environmental resource management. In that time, he has become a leading voice in the resort’s push to survive a changing climate. 

De Jong said the pandemic has offered a hint at what damage could be done should climate change impact international tourism. At one point in 2021, international visitors had dropped to 15 per cent of total visitors, down from nearly half of all visitors in the previous fiscal year.  

“We’ve built an engine here that is of a scale that we need both a strong destination and regional market,” said the Whistler councillor.  

But what frightens De Jong most is not the COVID-19 pandemic or even a lack of snow. As he puts it, “it’s not the weather that’s going to take us down” but the geopolitical fallout of climate change as it triggers water and food shortages across the planet. 

“That could potentially just make us irrelevant. People won’t be travelling as much,” he said. “We will go as the global economy goes.”



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