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Glacial change

Global warming and human use seen as factors in Horstman’s shrinking size After three chairlifts and one bus ride up from the Whistler valley, skiers and snowboarders leave behind grassy slopes and green forests for a world of rock and ice.

Global warming and human use seen as factors in Horstman’s shrinking size

After three chairlifts and one bus ride up from the Whistler valley, skiers and snowboarders leave behind grassy slopes and green forests for a world of rock and ice.

The sun’s rays radiate down from the summer sky but after cresting the ridge beneath Blackcomb Mountain’s peak, the air temperature drops noticeably.

Protected by the ridge’s north face – and spread out like a thick pancake on a tilted frying pan – is the 45-hectare Horstman Glacier.

The glacier’s natural features are covered by two T-bars, a halfpipe, terrain park, mogul field and groomed racing lanes.

Before the midday sun can start softening the snow, the glacier is home to eight different private summer ski and snowboard camps. At noon, it opens to the public.

But the pancake is not quite as thick this year as it has been in the past.

"Yeah, it’s definitely one of the lowest snowpacks I’ve ever seen," Stu Osborne, the glacier’s operations manager, says after parking his snow-cat for the day.

Horstman Glacier usually receives an average annual snowfall of 10 metres. This year’s snowfall fell short of that total by two metres.

"But the groomers have been doing an incredible job," says Osborne, who has been working on the glacier every summer for the past five years. "We’ll make it to the end."

The glacier, which opened June 11 for skiing and snowboarding, is scheduled to close for the summer season on Aug. 6.

"At first, we were hesitant," says Sarah Armstrong of the Dave Murray Summer Ski and Snowboard Camp. "But the conditions didn’t affect us at all."

No matter what the amount of snow on the glacier, Osborne says the majority of camps use salt to slow the surface from melting. "It keeps the snow firm," he says.

But salt also does another thing: it melts the glacial ice faster than normal.

And due to global warming trends, glaciers from the Alps to the Andes are already receding.

This year’s low snowpack doesn’t help either. A glacier is like a bank account; it needs more deposits than withdrawls for a positive balance.

At present, glaciers cover approximately 11 per cent of the Earth’s landmass. In Canada, glaciers cover 200,000 square kilometres – more than six times the size of Vancouver Island.

"Salt helps accelerate the melting process," says Olav Slaymaker, a UBC geography professor who specializes in the study of human impact on mountain environments.

"But the amount used (on Horstman Glacier) is not likely to make a significant impact."

Slaymaker does, however, point out that salt and other chemicals, such as diesel exhaust fumes, that become trapped in glacial ice could influence water quality.

"In many parts of the province, glaciers are crucial for water storage and supply," he says in an interview from his office on the Vancouver campus.

Glacial ice holds the bulk of the world’s fresh water. If today’s glaciers were to thaw completely, the oceans could rise as much as 70 metres.

Meltwater from the Horstman Glacier forms Horstman Creek, which tumbles down from 2,000 metres above sea level before it meets Fitzsimmons Creek near Green Lake.

The water, and whatever else is in it, then returns to the Pacific Ocean via the Lillooet, Harrison and Fraser river systems before it is showered back onto the mountain slopes.

Arthur DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb’s environmental manager, is also concerned about the health of glaciers atop the local mountains.

Over on Whistler Mountain’s north face, Whistler Glacier has shrunk considerably over the years that the ski area has been operating. The Dave Murray Summer Ski Camp, which once made that glacier its home base, moved across the valley to Horstman Glacier in 1991.

"If we had a choice, we wouldn’t use (salt)," DeJong says.

He notes the resort operator is trying to do its part in slowing global warming by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases its equipment – snow cats and maintenance trucks – releases into the atmosphere by constantly upgrading its equipment.

According to DeJong, Whistler-Blackcomb has lowered its fuel consumption by 20-30 per cent with the new diesel-powered snow cats it leased last year.

"All these things can have a micro-effect," he says.

Whistler-Blackcomb has won a number of ski industry-awarded environmental awards in the past and is a member of the National Ski Areas Association’s environmental charter.

Glaciers also contain a key to the past. Snow that falls each year – as well as dust, pollen and volcanic ash – forms into layers that record the Earth’s natural history.

Slaymaker says salt and other chemicals are not as big an issue in altering Coast mountain glaciers as they are in the Columbia and Rocky mountains, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to salt away Whistler’s glaciers.

"Any interference can cause unexpected results," he says.

DeJong says Whistler-Blackcomb hired a glaciologist in the mid-1990s to study the affects of skiing and boarding on Horstman Glacier.

"I’ve been watching the glacier for more than 20 years and I’ve seen it in worse shape," says DeJong.

But according to Slaymaker, Horstman Glacier is not studied as carefully as it should be, especially since it sees year-round use.

"There is a need for more careful measurement," he says, noting that two of his graduate students are studying two other Whistler-area glaciers – Fitzsimmons and Joffre – this summer. "We’re not totally sure what’s going on."

DeJong and Slaymaker both sum up the local debate slowly but surely, just like the glaciers they’re talking about.

"We’re all in this together," DeJong says.

"It’s rather simple, but it’s important," concludes Slaymaker. "It’s all interconnected."