Feeling the heat?

🕔Jan 30, 2007

John Dalton leans back in his chair at the Ski & Ride Smithers office and gazes out the window. “It really is beautiful today,” he says, absently admiring a crisp new layer of snow on Hudson Bay Mountain. Dalton should know. Snow is his mainstay.

So far this year, one of the only work-related stresses the Ski & Ride Smithers general manager has encountered was scrambling to get the hill ready for the Nov. 17 season opening—a week earlier than originally planned—with a base of nearly one metre. It’s a big change from last year—the year 20/20 Properties took ownership of the local resort—when lack of snow prevented the hill from opening until Dec. 26.

Climate change is a buzz-word that has pervaded mainstream media and become a household name in recent years, but despite threats of increasing temperatures in the alpine coupled with unprecedented ski hill expansion across Western Canada, scientific data on potential effects of climate change on northern BC’s ski industry is about as rare as a June snowball fight in the Okanagan.

“No one can tell us how it’s going to affect us for sure,” says Dalton, whose knowledge about the potential repercussions of climate change on his business is limited to informal discussions with local scientists. “Some people say we’ll have more snow and some say we’ll have less.”

If faced with consistently low snow years, investing in snow-making equipment is something Dalton says the resort would consider, although cost and environmental impacts make that option less appealing. Ultimately more sustainable and cost-effective is working toward making Ski & Ride Smithers a four-season operation, something that is part of the long-term business plan for two of northern BC’s recently purchased resorts.

Ski & Ride Smithers has been working with the province to develop trails on its slopes and hopes to have lift-accessed mountain-biking up and running this summer. “There is money out there for these projects, so we need to make sure we’re in a position to take advantage of that,” says Dalton, referring to a $120,000 grant Burns Lake recently received for a mountain-biking pilot project.

Smithers’ current population may not be large enough to make it viable as a year-round resort, but Dalton says summer use will begin in stages with a view to having the lodge consistently open in the future.

“We’ll take existing events, make them better and better, attract more people and grow them organically,” he says.

Embarking on his second season as owner of Powder King Mountain Resort, Jim Salisbury says he’s not sweating about climate change. Since opening in 1965 with a staggering total snowfall of 72 feet, Powder King’s 25-year average annual total snowfall has been 41 feet and, with lots of snow already this year, the resort is well on its way to meeting that again for the 2006-07 season.

But big snow years aside, Salisbury is also working to make Powder King a popular year-round destination. Apart from upgrading on-hill accommodations and clearing brush from runs (allowing the resort to open with less snow base), the company is also planning a summer RV park and ATV tours that would take visitors up the peak in warmer months.

“As far as climate change affecting our ski season goes, I don’t see it being an issue,” he says. “If it warmed up maybe we’d get more snow. Typically, it’s always been about -12 or -15 degrees over the winter, so if it warms up to about -5, then we could end up with more snow. This big ol’ world we live in has been changing for thousands of years, so it’s hard to say.”

It’s tricky enough to accurately predict precipitation in the five-day forecast, never mind over the next several decades, says UNBC professor Peter Jackson. But one thing the associate professor of atmospheric science for the university’s Environmental Science and Environmental Engineering Program does know is that things are heating up.

His findings show the average winter-spring temperatures in Prince George warmed by 0.4 degrees Celsius each decade between 1943 and 2001. While he agrees that fewer dramatically cold days could mean bigger snowfalls and also attract more skiers to the slopes, he admits that it’s hard to predict what climate change might mean for the future of northern BC’s ski industry.

What science does know for sure is that temperatures at high elevations have warmed more than at low elevations, with higher latitudes more affected by climate change than equatorial areas.

“So the mountains are more affected by climate change than the valleys, which is of importance for ski operators as well,” Jackson says. “I think they have cause for concern, because there could be negative or positive connotations, but I don’t think science can say for sure right now.”

University of Waterloo assistant geography professor Daniel Scott had somewhat of a different take on climate change’s effects on the ski industry. Scott, who studied resorts in the Rocky Mountain National Parks, projected that average ski seasons at lower elevations would decrease 50 to 57 percent by the 2020s, and 66 to 94 percent by the 2050s, while ski resorts at higher elevations—those above 2,600 metres—would experience much smaller reductions.

For all you fans keeping score at home, ski resorts between Prince George and Terrace don’t even break the 2,000-metre mark. Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, on the other hand, both top out around 2,700 metres.

Using Scott’s data, University of Calgary PhD student Dave Reynolds concluded that the misfortune of many northern resorts could mean big bucks for the renowned tourist destinations of Banff and Jasper when die-hard skiers flock to the Canadian Rockies as lower-elevation resorts begin to close across Canada—and around the world.

While this sounds compelling for Banff-area businesses, it doesn’t flow with Stephen Déry, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at UNBC, who notes that warming temperatures at higher elevations could be—well—somewhat of a snowball effect.

“Alpine areas in BC will undoubtedly experience amplified climate change compared to the global average,” Déry says. “As snow and ice diminish in the area, more solar radiation tends to be absorbed by the surface which, in turn, leads to a positive feedback. This mechanism enhances warming in high-altitude regions such as BC.”

Doug Forseth, chair of the board for Canada West Ski Areas Association and senior vice president for Whistler Blackcomb, says ski hill operators in Western Canada have begun to sit up and take notice of what science has been saying for some time. While he notes that warming temperatures aren’t likely to take place overnight, he says making use of ski resorts in summer just makes good business sense.

“I think our ski areas are looking at more year-round use, but that’s because we’ve already got the infrastructure in place,” he says. “If you can do some business in the summer months, you’re prepared for the possibility as things do change. That’s a good thing.”

At Shames Mountain in Terrace, administration manager Susan Farwig says the area doesn’t have the population base or “golf course” terrain conducive to summer use, but after 40 years in the ski industry, she says cyclical weather is just part of the biz and notes that the 1980s and early 1990s were windfall snow years. Expert advice and random musings aside, one thing is certain—the long-term forecast for northern BC’s ski industry is variable.

“If climate change is affecting Shames, and if some of the low snow years are a result of climate change, of course we’re concerned,” Farwig says.