Climate change threatens B.C.’s ski industry

Some experts believe that by 2080, 50 to 75 per cent of North America’s ski resorts will disappear.

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Cherie Kroll does the math every time she steps into her skis.

So far this year, she’s skied five times, choosing not to go when conditions are poor. She paid $800 for her season pass at Grouse Mountain, including equipment and parking passes. That adds up to about $160 a visit.

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“I don’t like those numbers,” she says.

Kroll, who learned to ski on the North Shore mountains as a kid, once skied so often that each visit cost less than $20. But she also remembers being 14 and scraping together $75 for a pass, only to find one run open.

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“There have been bad years before,” she says, “but I do wonder if this will become the norm.”

Experts believe it will.

By mid-century, about half of the ski seasons on the B.C. coast will be warmer than this one, with “bad years” becoming as frequent as good years or even more frequent than good years, said University of B.C. climate scientist Michael Pidwirny.

Using historic data and climate models based on the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, he estimates the average season at Whistler will be similar to this dismal season by 2050.

By 2080, some models predict, 50 to 75 per cent of North America’s ski resorts will disappear.

“The coastal mountains face the most dire situation,” Pidwirny said, referring to the Grouse, Seymour and Cypress ski operations on Vancouver’s North Shore and Mount Washington on Vancouver Island.

But it’s also bad news for B.C. in general, where the ski business employs about 21,000 people, generates $2.02 billion in revenue, including $1.3 billion from out-of-province visitors, and provides outdoor recreation through 7.4 million skier visits each year.

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While some mountains may fare better than others, it’s clear serious changes are on the way for B.C.’s snow seekers.

Mount Seymour ski area
Young snowboarders walk on thin snow with bare patches showing dirt at Mount Seymour on the North Shore on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Ski hills mostly brown

The challenges facing the North Shore resorts have been obvious this winter. At times, the ski runs cut into the forested slopes above Vancouver have looked brown, not white.

As B.C. basked in a balmy December, resorts delayed their opening day, then struggled to stay open over the Christmas holidays as warmth records were broken across the province.

January brought a cold snap and then an atmospheric river. Rain melted snow at lower elevations, forcing some of the coastal mountain ski operations to temporarily close. Whistler Blackcomb asked beginners to take the gondolas down from mid-mountain after runs on the lower mountain that lacked much snow were damaged.

Cypress Mountain in the rain.
The Cypress ski resort was forced to temporarily close in early February after rain and warm temperatures melted snow. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10103734A

While February started off warm and dry, the last few weeks have been cooler, allowing most mountains to reopen.

But that hasn’t stopped pass holders from posting online about a lack of transparency — and lack of snow — at some resorts.

Kroll believes the North Shore mountains will need to change their business model to provide pass holders with some guarantee of compensation in bad years, or people won’t buy in.

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“People won’t be able to afford the risk, and they’ll say ‘I’m not doing it again,’” she said.

Susy Bell, who spent almost $2,000 on a “gold” season pass for her family at Sasquatch near Agassiz, said she’ll never gamble on it again. She was also planning to buy a condo on the mountain, but has decided against it.

“If you’re going to take that kind of money from families, you need a plan when there’s no snow,” she said.

Cherie Kroll at the Grouse Mountain gondola.
Cherie Kroll, a season pass holder at Grouse Mountain, prepares to ride the gondola for her fifth day of skiing this season. Kroll wants the mountain to provide better information and compensation when conditions are poor. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Pidwirny said he was surprised resorts haven’t been more open with the skiing public about a situation that isn’t really a surprise.

B.C.’s ski resorts have a “pretty good understanding” of the weather patterns that bring snow to the mountains. El Niño years, like this one, are usually warmer, with more rain than snow. Many skiers will remember 2014-15 as the year “without a ski season,” he said.

This year, El Niño has likely contributed to a snowpack that’s about 39 per cent lower than normal across B.C., said Dave Campbell, head of the B.C. River Forecast Centre. About two-thirds of snow accumulation typically happens by early February, with a “wholesale switch” to snowy weather at this point unlikely.

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But El Niño isn’t the only factor at play as B.C. begins to feel the bite of climate change. The record low snowpack across the province follows a 50-year trend toward smaller snowpacks, meaning a decrease in annual snow accumulation, said Campbell. Areas where the temperature typically hovers around freezing are increasingly likely to be above zero more often, resulting in rain, not snow, on mountain slopes.

“That change in phase, based on the zero degrees level, really jumps out in the February snowpack numbers,” he said. Coastal B.C. and Vancouver Island, where winters are usually milder, have had some of the biggest drops in snowfall this year.

Across Canada, snow is arriving later in the fall and melting earlier, said Chris Derksen, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Meteorologists are also noticing the freezing level bouncing around more. In the past, high elevation areas would freeze in the fall and remain frozen through the winter snow accumulation, before thawing in the spring, he said. “Now we see that freeze-to-thaw transition happening more frequently” over the course of the winter.

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That change has been evident at Big White near Kelowna, where the resort once marketed itself as a place it never rained. That’s no longer true, said senior vice-president Michael Ballingall, although the mountain’s location means it has a decent snow base this year.

Big White usually aims to open by American Thanksgiving, but the opening was delayed four times this year. That unpredictability is hard to manage, said Ballingall. Staff arrive in mid-November and must be housed and trained, regardless of when guests start to come.

“There’s an enormous cost to open every season — and then we wait.”

Ballingall said climate change also brings other challenges.

If the North Shore mountains have a bad year, it hurts the entire B.C. ski industry. Big White relies on the smaller resorts to help people fall in love with skiing — and to train their kids to ski.

Big White is working to remind people that it is open well into the spring, when conditions are often fantastic. But people have started playing golf or baseball by then, and skiing is no longer on their minds.

But overall, Ballingall believes Big White is in a good position. Interior B.C. should continue to get snow for decades to come and its business could benefit as mountains on the coast struggle, he said.

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“We don’t have to reinvent ourselves. We just need to remind people we’re here.”

chairlift at Mount Seymour
Dirt shows on part of a run near a chairlift at Mount Seymour, conditions that have discouraged many skiers this season. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Climate change threatens snow sports

The National Ski Areas Association calls climate change “the No. 1 threat to the snow sports industry.”

On its website, the American organization said it supports “regulatory standards and legislation to curb carbon emissions.”

Several B.C. operations, including Cypress and Big White, are part of a Canadian advocacy group called Protect Our Winters.

But ski resorts are also looking for ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change, said Christopher Nicolson, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association.

That includes summer grooming — removing rocks, stumps and other obstacles on ski runs to make them skiable when the snow cover is thin. Adding dirt and smoothing it, rather than waiting for deep snow to fill in the bumps, can also allow resorts to open earlier in the season, he said.

Winter snow management, or “snow farming,” will also be important. Resorts can use snow-making machines and install snow fences to catch blowing snow, stockpile it and then “spread it like peanut butter on the slope” as needed.

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A person skis through a mist of snow at Grouse Mountain.
A person skies through a mist of snow generated by a snow-making machine at Grouse Mountain this week. Photo by Cherie Kroll /For PNG

Nicolson said he expects to resorts to continue to diversify to become all-season mountain resorts, with several revenue streams, like mountain biking or hiking, in the summer.

Some resorts are also changing their business model to sell more season passes, which gives them a stable income, no matter what kind of winter it is.

“The ski industry used to be ruled by weather,” said Dane Gergovich, senior communications manager for Whistler Blackcomb. But Vail Resorts, which bought Whistler Blackcomb in 2016, has been trying to “change that dynamic” by selling more season passes.

Vail’s “Epic Pass,” a season pass that provides unlimited access to a network of Vail Resort mountains, could be a better deal for skiers as the price of a single-day lift ticket for Whistler Blackcomb has risen. The pass is only on sale until early December — before winter snow conditions are known — and it’s non-refundable.

“We incentivize the pre-season purchase of passes by offering incredible value, flexibility and benefits to skiers and riders that is only offered with our passes versus in-season lift tickets,” Gergovich said in a statement. “In return, that commitment provides our company, our communities, and our employees with stability in the face of weather variability. In other words, we know who’s coming before the season really kicks off.”

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Other B.C. mountains seem to be following suit, raising the price of single-day lift tickets, while promoting early-bird sales of season passes. But without a network of mountains, or clients who can afford to chase snow across the globe, the concept has the potential to backfire in a bad year.

Some B.C. mountains, like Revelstoke, Sun Peaks and Panorama, have joined a multi-resort pass called Mountain Collective. Skiers get two days each at 24 resorts around the world, allowing them to find good conditions when snowfall is “variable,” said CEO Todd Burnette.

For Vail Resorts, with 2.4 million people “pre-committed” to its 41 resorts through passes, the income allows them to “continuously reinvest back into the employee and guest experience, no matter the winter we have,” said Gergovich.

That includes big spending on snow-making systems, another pillar of the ski industry’s plan to adapt to climate change.

Snow-making will become critical as mountains warm, said University of Waterloo geography professor Daniel Scott.

But it has its limits.

The temperature must be low enough — usually around -2 C — for the water droplets sprayed by snow cannons to freeze and fall as snow. In mid-January, temperatures on the North Shore mountains were often warmer than that. Another issue is the cost of the systems, which use large amounts of power and water.

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In terms of sustainability, “snow-making has a fairly minor footprint” in B.C., said Scott, due to the province’s hydroelectric power and access to water. He’s also weighed the environmental cost of using snow-making machines against the cost of getting on a flight to a ski resort.

“One flight of ski tourists to Whistler uses more carbon than all of Quebec’s snow-making for an entire winter,” he said. “If you can keep B.C. ski tourists in B.C., it is actually a climate mitigation strategy.”

Snow-making machines on Grouse Mountain.
Several snow-making machines were hard at work at Grouse Mountain this week as temperatures dipped below zero. Photo by Cherie Kroll /For PNG

Scott said there will be winners and losers in each ski market as the climate changes. He predicts consolidation of resorts, with just as many ski visits packed into a shorter season and less terrain. High-elevation resorts in colder areas will gain market share and improve their capacity for more people.

Postmedia was unable to reach Grouse, Cypress and Seymour for comment on how the local mountains are preparing for climate change.

Sasquatch general manager Todd Muir said that, at the moment, the mountain is “still focused on the season at hand.”

Robert Wilson, president of Bridal Veil Mountain Resort, an all-season resort proposed for the mountains above Chilliwack, said its application with the province remains in the early stages, but its “long-term goal is to offer year-round recreation opportunities at a destination mountain resort that is owned, designed, managed and governed with participating Stó:lō First Nations.”

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But as Pidwirny noted, the challenges facing ski hills in 2050 might pale in comparison to those on the areas down below.

As sea level rise reshapes coastal cities like Vancouver and impacts the everyday lives of citizens, adaptation isn’t the answer.

“We need to get our act together and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

Ski hills are just “the canary in the coal mine.”

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