Will BC’s famous “Powder Highway” survive in a warming world?
In a province known for its ski slopes and mountains, one region of British Columbia has earned a name worthy of its status as a skier’s paradise: the Powder Highway.
Along the six highways, which connect in a thousand-kilometer loop through the Kootenay Rockies and inland BC, you’ll find eight world-class ski resorts, more than 20 backcountry lodges, and a high concentration of cat and heli-skiing operations (the latter offer access to mountain slopes with snowcats or helicopters). It’s the largest concentration of ski services in the world, and for good reason, as the powder here is legendary.
An average of more than 18 meters of snow covers the region’s nearly three million hectares (about 265 times the size of the city of Vancouver).
Mike Douglas, the “godfather of freeskiing.” (Mia Gordon/The Weather Network)
“The Powder Highway is a skier’s journey. It’s not high-end tourism, it’s not fancy resorts and five-star dining. It’s for skiers,” Mike Douglas, the “Godfather of Freeskiing,” told The Weather Network. “People who want good snow and cool experiences. And a real bit of BC that’s getting harder and harder to find. There’s a pretty cool vibe there.”
But what would happen to the mood of the Powder Highway if the powder disappeared?
Ski resorts that need snow
As in many other ski areas in the country and around the world, the snow here is threatened by a changing climate. Disturbing images from Europe around New Year’s Eve showed green grass where there should be snow at some ski resorts, restricting access and forcing some to close entirely. In fact, some studies suggest that only ski resorts above 8,000 feet will be operational by the end of the century, and the ski resorts along the Powder Highway are no exception.
In the winter of 2014-15, BC experienced one of its worst winters on record for ski resorts. Many western ski resorts had to close parts of their slopes or even the entire ski area early due to the lack of snow. In a typical ski season, BC sees around 6.5 million visitors, but this season has seen a nearly 25 percent drop. Many called it a crazy season — an anomaly, but that may not be entirely true, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia.
The view from the slopes of the Kimberley Alpine Resort. (Mia Gordon/The Weather Network)
What the research says about the future
Professor Michael Pidwirny led a team of UBC researchers in assessing the impact climate change could have on ski resorts in North America, and the results were dismal.
“Average conditions in 2050 will be like the really bad winters of 2014 and 2015. If that’s the average, 50 percent of the years will be even warmer than that,” Pidwirny told The Weather Network.
The team used spatially interpolated climate data generated by a software database called ClimateBC and ClimateNA. By inputting climate simulation models, they were able to get a clearer picture of what future snow forecasts will be for British Columbia’s ski resorts.
Relative location of the 12 resorts in Western Canada. (Michael Pidwirny)
“The main variables we looked at are temperature, precipitation in the form of snow, and precipitation, because essentially, as warming increases, there will be less snow and more rain. Then we modeled the length of the ski season,” said Pidwirny.
They presented their results for best and worst case scenarios, with the best being an increase of about 2.5°C and the worst being an increase of about 4.5°C. The models showed that by 2085, at worst, indoor resorts will see a fall in snowfall of between 26-38 percent. This would also result in a shorter season, with resorts in the same region losing between 48 and 77 days.
Pidwirny says it will be a gradual decline, and indeed some resorts along the Powder Highway may actually get better before they start to deteriorate.
“The ski resorts near Banff will do quite well because the problem is that January is too cold and people don’t show up,” he explained.
But that won’t last forever. Pidwirny predicts that by 2085, even places like Whitewater Ski Resort near Nelson, BC, will see 60 percent of their winter precipitation come in the form of rain.
Douglas tells us that the changes are already showing.
“The things we used to rely on, the acquaintances, are getting weird. In the last ten years we’ve seen several mountains in the coast chain just starting to crumble, pieces just falling off and that’s a big problem,” he said.
Queuing for the ski lift at the Kimberley Alpine Resort. (Mia Gordon/The Weather Network)
causes and solutions
The irony, however, is that the resorts famous for their powder snow are also part of the threat that could destroy them. Emissions from the Skireport industry include the energy used to run chairlifts and gondolas, fossil-fuel consuming snow machines that are becoming increasingly necessary due to climate change, and then there’s the skiers themselves. A in the journal Mountain Research and Development says travel accounts for 86 percent of emissions from a ski vacation.
However, ski resorts and cities across BC and around the world are beginning to realize that they must make changes if they are to survive.
“Sustainability is really what the ski industry is looking at from different angles right now. Many resorts are looking at all sorts of ways to reduce their carbon footprint,” Mike McPhee, chief executive officer of Kootenay Rockies Tourism, told The Weather Network.
The solar panel solar mine near Kimberley, BC (Mia Gordon/The Weather Network)
There are already a few examples along the Powder Highway. Revelstoke has introduced Sustain the Stoke, a sustainability program that aims to reduce emissions in the city by promoting environmentally friendly transport. The city of Fernie has begun installing more electric vehicle charging stations. Kicking Horse has found it can reduce its emissions by slowing down its gondola on days with shorter lift lines. And Kimberley turned an old mine into a solar array capable of powering hundreds of homes.
Stay tuned to The Weather Network’s climate section in the coming weeks for more information on climate impacts and solutions along the Powder Highway.
Thumbnail: Skiers at Fernie Alpine Resort. (Target BC)