SOS: Save Our Snow

Ski hills respond to a changing climate.

This article appeared in the Winter 2015/16 issue of Highline Magazine in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Illustration by Sarah Eisenlohr.

Illustration by Sarah Eisenlohr.

With climate change and its effects on global weather patterns being contended with the world over, the reality of milder winters and hotter summers has clear implications for ski resorts both in Western Canada and its neighbour to the south.

Some people may still question whether climate change is real, or that it is even connected to the consumption of non-renewable resources and to greenhouse gas levels; however, it is an issue ski hills should have been anticipating since the early ’90s and, consequently, should have been planning and adapting their operations accordingly ever since.

Jagged Little Hill

American climate activist Auden Schendler is the vice-president of sustainability at Aspen Snowmass in Colorado. He says the issue of climate change is at a point where it is “in your face,” and the ski industry, as well as society in general, should be motivated to take action. For example, hit hardest in states like California and Oregon are hills like Homewood Mountain Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, which essentially closed operations last season. Other American hills that were impacted by no snow last season include Badger Pass, Dodge Ridge and Mt. Shasta Ski Park in California, and Willamette Pass Resort, Hoodoo Ski Area and Mt. Ashland Ski Area in Oregon.

“The conversation we are having today is different than 10 years ago because climate change is here, and ski resort managers who don’t understand this and who aren’t really agitated and pushing for solutions are just bad business people,” says Schendler.

The case for mitigation and adaptation to climate change for ski hills in Western Canada is demonstrated clearly by Whistler Blackcomb’s Climate Change and Resource Efficiency Strategy, published in 2013. Mountain planning and environmental resource manager Arthur De Jong prepared the 127-page report. The ski resort’s goal is to achieve zero waste, zero carbon and zero net emissions. De Jong says the publicly traded company has a vision to lead and to inspire global tourism in resource conservation. Carbon reduction is central to achieving this goal, which is why the resort started developing an environmental management system in 1993.

“Even back in the early ’90s (when the first intergovernmental panel on climate change was initiated by the United Nations) we were aware that the climate was changing, mostly because we operate on glaciers,” De Jong says. “Glaciers are the most sensitive ecosystem to temperature change. They are nature’s thermometre, so we were very aware to changes in climate. In 1993, we really didn’t know how much of it was anthropogenic versus natural cycles, but nonetheless we knew back then we should build higher, put more lift capacity higher, and invest more in snowmaking. Adaptation for us started a long time ago.”

Simply knowing that climate change is an issue is not enough. De Jong says assessment of how it will affect a particular area and a ski hill operation is essential to understanding how to adapt, to mitigate, and to take action operationally for a changing climate with warmer winters, hotter summers and more extreme storms.

“The assessment phase was important for us to understand the changes taking place, as well as projecting what may happen,” he says. “Our goal is very lofty, but it is to have a zero operating footprint. If we do that ourselves it is meaningless unless by doing it we inspire others.”

Making a business case for carbon reduction efforts has been important for Whistler Blackcomb, and De Jong says that being one of the first large tourism operators to actually get close to having a zero operating footprint is very powerful. He says that with eight to nine per cent of the global economy directly related to tourism, setting that kind of example and connecting it to profitability can and will inspire others in the industry. Whistler Blackcomb, in fact, saves $1 million annually on electricity through its sustainability efforts. De Jong says that energy is the second highest expense for the company after labour.

It Takes a Village

Energy efficiency efforts are a low hanging fruit when it comes to action against climate change. Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort chief operating officer Dave Riley says his ski hill looks at what can be done locally to reduce their carbon footprint: increasing mass transportation to the hill, investigating how fossil fuels are used and managing energy. With regard to the latter, for instance, Sunshine has: initiated an extensive light fixture replacement program; installed high efficiency heating furnaces to replace older less efficient units; now uses power factor correction through an investment in capacitor banks to reduce wasting energy; installed an automated energy management system in the Sunshine Mountain Lodge and day lodge; and switched to solar panels rather than generators for communications systems.

Sunshine is blessed by its geography at a high elevation in the Rocky Mountains and a location that gets enough precipitation to boast all natural snow cover. But an uncertain future with climate change means the ski hill may have to consider the s-word: snowmaking. (Snowmaking is an adaptation strategy ski hills have utilized to combat climate change’s effects, but it is one that increases the operation’s carbon footprint.)

“We have, in our discussions with Parks Canada on a long range basis, explored the idea of expanding our snowmaking system — and the way to do that without it impacting minimum stream flows in the winter is through storage. You basically have to have adequate reservoir storage so you don’t draw (water from) the stream during low flow conditions,” says Riley.

Makin’ It Snow

Radically improving snowmaking at a ski hill is likely the most creative adaption available to operators. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies senior vice-president of marketing and resort experience, Matt Mosteller, says snowmaking improvements are key for ski hills like Nakiska Ski Resort, which sits at the lowest elevation of those located in western Alberta. Developed to host the 1988 alpine events during the Calgary Winter Olympics, Nakiska’s snowmaking system received upgrades to rerouting and cooling in the summer of 2015. Mosteller points to the nozzles and the pumps used for snowmaking as examples of infrastructure that has been replaced in order to use less energy while making more snow. He says the new pumps utilize nozzle technology so that snow can be made at variable temperatures while using less water. There is a reduction in water use, energy use and, at the same time, the product is more skier and snowboarder friendly.

Beat the Heat

Globally, business and government have been mitigating for and trying to limit warming to two degrees Celsius. De Jong has plugged two degrees Celsius into models for Whistler Blackcomb, and he suggests that the outcomes are manageable but expensive; yet he warns that that kind of warming, when modelled globally for water and food supply, shows the hill has greater resilience than does the general economy, and those larger context scenarios pose a risk to tourism as well. In a world that is far more significantly resource-stressed because of reductions in water and food supply, as well as the associated geopolitical outcomes of that potential reality, people may not be able to travel for leisure as freely.

“Climate change is not necessarily going to knock us directly; it is going to knock us indirectly because of a significantly compromised global economy due to these shortages. It is that big of a picture,” says De Jong.

Another key area for ski hills to concentrate efforts in a warming climate is diversification. De Jong says that some authorities would consider diversification to be a part of adaptation, but for Whistler Blackcomb it is a big deal on its own. “Resorts have all these unused assets for five, six months of the year, and so it is obviously a much stronger business model if you can utilize those assets through more months of the year profitably,” he says. “So climate change or no climate change, diversification is a very important business model. With climate change it makes it all the more important that we are building experiences that don’t require snow.”

Connecting the upper slopes of the two mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb – with the Peak 2 Peak gondola was an adaptation effort that allows riders and skiers to access high elevation terrain easily. But it also is a major draw for visitors in the summer months along with the company’s lift assisted downhill mountain biking offerings.

Closer to Banff, Mount Norquay has undertaken the lengthy process of having site guidelines and a long range plan approved by Parks Canada that included developing a via ferrata route (a fixed mountain route equipped with cables, ladders, and bridges meant to increase ease and security for climbers) on the mountain. The new use allows those without extensive climbing or mountaineering experience to get a taste of life above the treeline. While via ferrata is a way for the ski hill to diversify its operations into the summer months, it has resulted in some controversy with conservation groups that oppose building permanent structures within the national park.

Begging for Change

There is another way to create change in order to address the issue — advocacy.

Typically resorts take action to mitigate or adapt to a changing climate, but they do not advocate for policy action, and that needs to change. In the United States, for example, the National Ski Area Association and others are engaged in advocacy work.

“All tourism, all industries, everything is carbon intense, so the only way for ski resorts to deal with that issue is for them to say we need to create a society that uses less carbon,” says Schendler. “Not saying to stop skiing, or stop travelling, but that we can be part of the solution to create a severely carbon-constrained world, [and] still do the things we want to do.”

Schendler and Aspen Snowmass are part of a campaign called Protect Our Winters (POW) south of the border, which advocates government for action on climate change through policy, as well as supporting educational initiatives and community based activism. He points to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent Clean Power Plan as an example of policy that sets out to address climate change, and one that brought China to the table along with President Barack Obama.

With a newly elected Liberal government in Canada and one that under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set out a platform to deal with climate change – Schendler says he is optimistic change in policy is coming to this country sooner rather than later.

Advocacy is the third pillar to Whistler Blackcomb’s climate change strategy. De Jong says the ski hill has taken action to clean out its “own locker room,” and now there is a need to build more of an advocacy role for the industry and for tourism as a whole.

“We are just bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon if we think we are really going to make a difference by just being in our own locker room,” he says. “I often tell people we are not living in interesting times; we are living in defining times. This needs to be taken care of now, and ski areas and tourism can play a very active and inspirational role in getting the job done.”

Mosteller said there is an role for advocacy from the industry, but he also sees a role for individual skiers and snowboarders to have an advocacy voice. “I look at advocacy as we all have to do our part to find ways to innovate and find ways to reduce our footprint. There is no doubt about that,” he says. “All of us, not just the industry, everyone who enjoys the outdoors and the mountains.”

Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert has been a reporter for the Rocky Mountain Outlook for the past nine years, including a brief sojourn to Whistler to be editor of a newspaper in that mountain town. She is also a regular commentator on Mountain FM. Her life goal is to have a sandwich named after her.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @mtngrrrl

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