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Rocky start to B.C. ski season sign of bleaker winters to come

Christmas season is supposed to be one of ski resorts' most lucrative, but warm weather and little snow have forced several resorts to scale back operations or close entirely.
Skiers and boarders get a lift on the Easy Rider Quad Chair for their first runs of the season at Cypress Mountain. The North Shore ski hill was the first to open on Dec. 7, but as the holidays approach, only the bunny hill remains open. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

Seymour Mountain shut due to “inclement weather.”

Cypress Mountain open but only operating its bunny hill.

Dirt stains the thin snow surrounding a monument to the 2010 Olympics.

With only a few days before Christmas, British Columbia's ski season has got off to a rocky start. And according to experts, it could be a sign of things to come. 

This year, the arrival of the El Niño cycle is set to bring a warm, dry winter to this part of the world. But it also comes on the back of one of the hottest 12 months ever recorded on the planet, and likely the hottest in the past 120,000 years

“If you have less precipitation and warm temperatures, the snow doesn't accumulate,” said Michael Pidwirny, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

“All the effects put together mean the worst sort of ski season.”

Pidwirny recently pulled together a number of indicators to forecast ski conditions across B.C. between December 2023 to March 2024. 

This year, the impacts of human-caused climate change are expected to collide with an El Niño event so strong it has more than a 54 per cent chance placing among the top five events since 1950, said the researcher, referring to recent advisories from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has forecast temperatures in B.C., Alberta and several western U.S. states will be one to two degrees celsius above normal in February and March 2024. 

Precipitation across January, February and March, meanwhile, will be below normal across all of B.C.’s coast, the centre forecasts. 

In B.C., the dry weather is expected in regions that have already faced extended periods of drought.

Next season could be worse

While this season’s conditions “sound grim” next winter may be worse, said Pidwirny. That’s because beyond human-caused climate change and the El Niño phenomenon, there’s another natural climate cycle that could send winter weather into a warm extreme. 

Known by scientists as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), the sometimes decades-long phenomenon leads to swings in sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean between the northern latitudes of 20 and 60 degrees. 

The cool or negative PDO phase B.C. is now in may be tempering warmer temperatures, while keeping precipitation offshore in the Pacific, said Pidwirny.

But the researcher says there is “a good probability” the PDO will switch to the warm or positive phase before the 2024-25 ski season.

That switch tends to lead to a zone of warm seawater hugging the coast from Alaska to Baja California — the same phenomenon that helped produce “The Blob,” an extremely warm patch of water off the Alaska and B.C. coast. 

The last time that happened was in the 2014-2015 ski season, when Cypress Mountain cobbled together a single run: a slip-n-slide path of man-made snow, before closing all together in February. 

Should that happen again in the 2024-25 ski season, warming temperatures and reduced snowfall could impact ski resorts from B.C.’s coast to the B.C.-Alberta border, said Pidwirny.

A taste of the future

Pidwirny said the trials of this year’s ski season are a sign of things to come. 

Even without the swings in natural climatic cycles, global warming has already led to an “obvious warming trend” of 1.5 C in B.C.’s coastal mountain resorts — 25 per cent more warming than the global average.

A few years ago, Pidwirny and his colleagues modelled future climate in a dozen B.C. resorts, from Vancouver Island to the Rocky Mountains.

They found precipitous drops in snowfall over the coming decades at many of these mountains, with the heaviest future snowfall declines near the coast, where maritime influences are expected to turn snow to rain at resorts like Cypress, Seymour, Grouse and Mount Washington.

By 2050, the worst-case scenario season — like that seen at Cypress in 2015 and that could come again over the next 12 months — is expected to become the average, meaning one out of every two ski seasons would be even warmer.

A disappearing snowpack could be devastating for a number of species, including salmon who rely on melting snow in the spring to cool the rivers they use to migrate and spawn.

But it could also be bad for the multibillion-dollar ski industry, and not just in coastal B.C.

According to studies from University of Waterloo researcher Daniel Scott, a high-carbon future would largely wipe out all 99 ski areas in the American Midwest by late century; across Quebec, Ontario and the northeastern corner of the U.S., only 29 out of 171 ski resorts are projected to survive. Out west, places like California, where water sources to make snow are limited, will get “clobbered” in the same way the European Alps will lose out.

That’s expected to vastly alter the world of professional mountain winter sports. 

Under the low-emission climate change scenario, the number of reliable Olympic hosts is expected to remain almost unchanged throughout the 21st century — nine out of 21 previous hosts remain reliable in the 2050s, and eight could still offer safe and fair games into the 2080s, according to another 2021 study led by Scott.

Under the high-emissions scenario, the city of Sapporo, Japan, will be the only city capable of hosting reliable, safe and fair games by the end of the century, the study found.

Pidwirny says the influence of Siberian and North American arctic air will likely make places like Japan and B.C. into islands of good snow in a warming world. 

“The Interior resorts are gonna get better conditions, and they’ll be winners in this,” said Pidwirny.

Snowmaking: the wild card

In the course of a 2021 Glacier Media investigation, many resorts said they have turned to grooming the base of runs in the off-season so snow can accumulate easier. Almost all of them said they've invested in new snowmaking machines in a tactic that is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.

In 2022, Scott published a study that found Canadian resorts currently use about 478,000 megawatt hours of electricity and more than 43 billion litres of water to make snow. 

That’s enough energy to power the equivalent of about 450,000 B.C. homes for over a month, and enough water to feed Metro Vancouver’s population for more than 42 days. But it’s only a fraction of what could be on the way. 

By 2050, Scott projected changes to Canada’s climate would lead to an increase in snowmaking between 55 per cent and 97 per cent.

But while you don’t need precipitation to make snow, you do need cold temperatures, and Pidwirny is skeptical the ongoing investment in such technology will save resorts closest to the coast. 

In 2021, when Glacier Media asked what warming threshold would make Mount Seymour’s winter ski business unviable, a spokesperson there said “there are too many variables” and it’s “impossible to say.”  

Two years later, and only days before the Christmas break, the mountain is among several that show no signs of fully opening. That's the first step, said Pidwirny.

“The resorts on the coast are gonna die out,” he said. “There’ll be more and more bad seasons until they just can’t operate anymore.”