So far, this has been another extraordinarily mild winter. Despite the fact that eastern Canada has been blasted with blizzards and snow storms, our weather has been more like an extension of fall. Eight times in January new high temperature records were set and the mean temperature average for the month was a really unusual 4.06 degrees C above normal.
According to Roger Pannett, volunteer weather observer for Environment Canada, “This was the second consecutive January with mean temperatures in excess of 4.0 degrees C above normal, a trend never previously observed since records commenced in 1896.”
The mean maximum for this January (8.87 degrees C) was just a shade above the mean maximum of January 2010 (8.78 degrees C), our Winter Olympics year when there was an urgency to get enough snow onto the ski slopes so that the Games could begin.
This January we’ve had a lot less precipitation (192.0 mm) compared to January five years ago (237.6 mm) and the winter has followed the predictions of David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, when he was reported in this column last December calling for the west coast to enjoy a milder than normal winter. The warm-up would begin during mid-December (which it did) and hold true during the winter (which, so far, it has).
But all the rain this winter has driven snow levels high up the mountains leaving coastal ski operators wringing their hands as they are forced to close the lower runs. While the Interior ski facilities have most or all of their runs open, the North Shore ski hills have just a handful of runs operating. As of yesterday, Cypress Bowl had nine of 54 runs open, Grouse Mountain had five of 26 runs open and Mount Seymour had just two of 39 runs operating.
Watching the climate trends, ski operators around the globe are aware that there are dire consequences for their enterprises in a warming world. In the U.S., the National Ski Areas Association runs a voluntary climate challenge program for resorts to inventory, target and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. They have some 30 resorts participating in the program and the commitment is as much a practical approach to their business as it is an ethical and proactive statement to counter climate change.
In 2007 Protect Our Winters was launched to raise awareness about the challenges of a changing climate and shrinking slopes and mobilize the winter sports community to take steps to reduce the effects of global warming.
But in Vancouver, climbing temperatures are already being recorded as long term trends.
According to a summary report Climate Changes and Impacts for the City of North Vancouver, between 1951 and 2000 average temperatures increased by 1.0°C at YVR Airport (0.2°C/decade), with further increases of 1.7°C and 2.7°C projected for the region by 2050 and 2080, respectively. However at Grouse Mountain the average temperature is increasing at twice that rate, +0.4°C/decade, with summer high temperatures at +0.7°C/decade and January low temperatures at +0.8°C/decade.
Stopping the trend of warming may be much harder than adapting to it and ski resorts will be looking for outdoor activities that don’t always involve snow. Spring, summer and fall activities such as hiking and camping will come much more into line alongside the appeal of winter sports as part of their annual business model. Yes, the ski resort operators can make snow to kickstart the season but it’s an energy intensive process requiring lots of water.
In a few more decades as temperatures continue to rise not only in El Nino years but in a slow, gradual trend, there will come a time when the snow won’t stick anymore.