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'Too wet, too rainy': How climate change could end ski business for many B.C. resorts

Fifteen thousand years ago, the mountains of Vancouver's North Shore emerged from an ice shelf. Now, some climate scientists say the winter legacy of B.C.'s coastal mountains is on the brink of collapse.
Cypress Mountain Sky Chair
Skiers and snowboarders ride to the peak of Mount Strachan at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort, one of three Vancouver, B.C., ski hills at risk of diminished snowfall in the coming decades, according to experts.

This is the first story in a two-part series looking at the impact of climate change on B.C. ski hills. For part two, click here.

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,” said 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.”  

Skiing Dione Glacier
A skier rips down the Dione Glacier high up in British Columbia's Tantalus mountain range near Squamish. At just over 2,000 metres high, the glacier is a remnant of an ice age that buried the valleys and islands below in up to two kilometres of ice. |  Alex Ratson / Getty Images

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. ​

Cypress Mountain peak
Mount Strachan, the highest peak at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort, is thought to have emerged from the 1.5-km thick Cordilleran Ice Sheet about 15,000 years ago. Today, it sits at the edge of another climate inflection point. |  Cypress Mountain Ski Resort/Facebook

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.” 

Cypress opens 04 November 2021
Snowboarders and skiers took to the slopes Nov. 19 as Cypress Mountain Resort was the first North Shore ski hill to open for the 2021/2022 ski season. |  Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

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.

Grouse snowmaking
An employee at Grouse Mountain Resort on Vancouver, B.C.'s, North Shore adjusts a snowmaking machine. As climate change raises snow levels, such machines are expected to play a growing role in keeping coastal resorts open. But they have limits. |  Grouse Mountain Resort

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, notes 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, says 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.’” 

Grouse Mountain at night
Like the resorts at Mount Seymour and Cypress Bowl, Grouse Mountain has offered skiers sweeping views of Metro Vancouver for a century. Climate models have thrown their winter snowfall into question. |  kongxinzhu / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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.

Curious how B.C. ski resorts will adapt? Check out part two here.

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email slabbe@glaciermedia.ca