Let it snow (before it’s too late)

Flakes fly in face of climate change even if ski resorts have to fake it

Our ski resorts are melting.

Okay that statement warrants a hyperbole alert. It’s not like our favourite hills in the Rockies are going to disappear next year due to the average global temperature increase of 0.8 C over the last century.

In fact Crosbie Cotton the director of the National Parks Ski Areas Association puts it well: “The truth of the matter is that our resorts are way up in the mountains compared to lots of others so a Whistler at sea level would be dramatically affected by climate change impacts which in turn could result in more skiers coming to Alberta.”

Might as well look on the bright side right?

So let’s rephrase that. Taking the long-term view skiable snow in the Rockies is in considerable jeopardy. Frightening declines in snowpack have already hit mountain ranges around the world since the Great Depression from the Alps (declines of between 15 and 25 per cent) to the Cascade Mountains (16 per cent). Blue Mountain the biggest ski resort in Ontario had to cut 1300 employees in early 2007 due to a lack of snow and temperatures that weren’t cold enough to artificially make the stuff. Terrain is evaporating.

La Niña the climactic event that Sunshine Village has repeatedly cited as the reason for excellent snowfalls at its location over the past few years (844 cm in flakes last season and 892 cm the season before) won’t provide the same cooling effect for long. Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie climate researchers at the University of Hawaii recently noted in a Nature article that “all the climate models predict a tropical Pacific warming in response to increased greenhouse gas concentrations” which would break the brief hiatus in rising temperatures caused by La Niña.

The relevant stats are sobering. According to Ian Bruce’s highly readable report On Thin Ice: Winter Sports and Climate Change (published by the David Suzuki Foundation) by 2050 the ski season in the Banff region will be between 66 and 94 per cent shorter in low-elevation areas and between nine and 59 per cent shorter at high-elevation areas with Lake Louise Ski Resort facing between 31 and 87 per cent shorter seasons at low-elevation areas and between two and 19 per cent at higher elevations. But that’s only counting natural snowfall — snowmaking cuts such stats down to near negligible numbers allowing the hills to remain open longer than they could otherwise.

So is snowmaking — a cost-intensive process that requires equipment staff lots of water and plenty of energy — the solution? As per usual there are a few opinions on the matter.


Daniel Scott a University of Waterloo professor of geography and environmental management (and the Canada Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism) contends that snowmaking is already an integral part of ensuring reliable ski seasons especially in low-altitude environments such as Ontario Quebec and New England — it’s keeping such businesses operational. But Scott says the rising costs of snowmaking will push some resorts out of the ring especially those not owned by larger conglomerates such as Intrawest a developer and operator of several destination resorts.

“They may not be able to pass those additional costs onto the skiers through lift passes” notes Scott who collected the stats comparing natural snowfall to snowmaking in the Rockies cited in the aforementioned David Suzuki Foundation report.

“What we’ve always said when we’ve looked at the implications of climate variability and climate change in the longer term is that it’s not going to be the end of the ski industry; it will be the end of certain players in the ski industry.”

Snowmaking works optimally with temperatures at or below -5 C and humidity levels in the teens. Additives such as Snowmax which uses a protein contained in the cellular wall of the Pseudomonas Syringae bacterium lower the freezing point of water and can be used to expand that range although Lee Smith of Parks Canada says such additions aren’t currently employed at Banff or Jasper National Park resorts. To use Snowmax resorts would have to go through an application process to ensure ecological well-being isn’t negatively affected (research into the environmental impact of Snowmax is ongoing).

As the temperature of the atmosphere increases precipitation will take the form of rain not snow and will affect the times that hills can make their own snow. The oft-referenced baseline is that for a ski hill to be financially sustainable it requires 100 days of snow cover.

“To be competitive you have to have a first-class product” says Cotton. “It’s a very challenging business especially with a lot of new resorts in British Columbia. Lake Louise wants to offer the best possible experience and snowmaking is one of the ways they do it.”

Lake Louise is specifically mentioned for a few reasons. Compared to Sunshine which only features snowmaking at lower altitudes Louise relies on the process to cover what Cotton estimates is some 40 per cent of the terrain. Snowmaking ensures that during busy periods such as the Christmas season — a time that “makes or breaks ski areas” — runs are fully covered with the white stuff. It makes sense that Louise added five fan guns and three groomers to its collection this year.


It’s evidently a tough industry to be in right now. But some — even those sympathetic to the plight of resort owners — suggest that snowmaking misses the point and simply delays the inevitable. Take Porter Fox the features editor of Powder Magazine and a longtime skier who recently travelled across North America and Europe to conduct research and interviews for his soon-to-be-released book Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow .

“If you’re coming into a world in which you need to use less energy and conserve more water and resources it just doesn’t seem prudent to be counting on snowmaking to keep the skiers” says Fox.

“Maybe in the short-term: nothing can be cut off cold turkey so it’s all a slow mitigation and adaptation at the same time. Snowmaking could very easily be a bridge to the future of ski resorts but it’s by no means the solution. It’s just economically not going to work out.”

To be fair the only way to prevent decreases in the level of snow is to stop climate change and that isn’t something ski resorts can do on their own. Scott notes that climate change projections are often concerned with events many decades away (for example the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute stated in August that by 2100 the average temperature in Alberta will rise by between 2 and 4 C). Meanwhile profits have to be made and debts need to be paid and for that to happen there has to be snow aplenty — even if that means resorts make it themselves.

“A lot of ski resorts in America are almost more real estate companies at this point than resorts” says Fox. “And if you tell your property owners and investors and even the banks that are giving you loans that you’re not going to have snow in 50 years who’s going to give you a bank loan? (Resorts) really have to walk that line very finely. I think they’re really trying their best. There’s no really great way to do it.”


However it’s difficult to deny the fact that snowmaking is a process inseparable from the very problem that it’s combating. Electricity is used to pump the enormous amount of water needed and to provide power for the snowmakers to run (older less efficient equipment requires diesel). The Asthma Society of Canada recently reported that 64 per cent of Alberta’s electricity was generated by burning coal in 2012 an act that creates tremendous pollution and GHG emissions (and river contaminations as of late).

Another problematic factor is the disruption of ecosystems due to water extraction and soil erosion. Last December a leaky snowmaking pipe at Sunshine Village caused the bank of the nearby Healy Creek to collapse clouding it with sediment. Smith of Parks Canada assures that such incidents are infrequent and that Sunshine fully remediated the slope although the summer floods reversed such efforts.

The solution however isn’t as simple as refusing to make snow.

“If you can’t make snow on your ski hills that are right near Calgary where do people go?” asks Scott.

“They have to drive another hour maybe two. The carbon footprint of the holiday or their activity can actually go up quite substantially because they’ve either driven or flown or done something else. When you divide the carbon footprint of the snowmaking by the 750000 people that ski at Blue Mountain every year it’s tiny. Every time they drive the car there the carbon footprint’s higher.”

Scott’s last point is a crucial one because it’s ultimately not snowmaking that’s causing our climate to shift so rapidly. There are much bigger players at work. Environment Canada calculates the country’s GHG emissions are being caused by transportation (24 per cent) oil and gas (23 per cent) electricity (13 per cent) and agriculture (10 per cent). Our snow isn’t melting because of snowmaking.

But even if the climate of the Rockies remains cold and dry enough to allow for snowmaking it just might not be enough for ski hills to stay profitable. Mark Williams a geography professor at University of Colorado at Boulder noted in an email that one of the unfortunate byproducts of snowpack melt in lower altitude resorts will be the decline in numbers of skiers from those areas learning the sport and spending money on vacations to high-altitude hills such as Sunshine and Louise. In the end it seems that we have a single option.

“Ultimately what the latest science shows is that we need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we’re to maintain Canada’s winter sports culture” says Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation. “We need to focus on the root cause primarily which is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think what’s challenging is if global warming’s allowed to intensify adaptations such as snowmaking alone only buys us a little time for those communities that are dependent on winter tourism. It’s not a long-term solution.”