Snowmaking and Climate Change
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Snowmaking and Climate Change

Wayne FlannSnow Report is written by paramedic and mountain patroller Wayne Flann. He moved to Whistler in 1979, and has worked as a Blackcomb Ski Patroller since 1984. Wayne is a blogger, father, and avid skier.

Snowmaking and Climate Change

Climate change has had a significant impact on winter resorts on both a regional and global level. Just look at the altitudinal-dependent natural snow line: it has become more difficult for winter resorts to reliably set scheduled openings, not to mention the challenges of ensuring that there is enough snow coverage all the way to the valley floor. These issues have a significant impact on the people who live in resort towns, on visitors and tourism, and, ultimately, on the bottom line, affecting the resorts’ financial vitality.

The mountains just before opening day.

The mountains just before opening day.

To remain competitive and to provide a reliable season, many winter resorts are making significant investments in snowmaking infrastructure.

Here on the south coast of British Columbia, the past two winter seasons have been plagued by La Nada­—dry, cold weather with the occasional storm in the mix, resulting in a below-average annual snowfall. Whistler Blackcomb has relied on a hard working snowmaking team, allowing the resort to achieve seemingly impossible early openings.

Their snowmaking supplies include 270 snow guns, 100 of which are fan guns and 170 of which are air water guns – the latter work better in marginal temperatures, which we are all too familiar with. Some are pretty high tech: 60 of the snow guns contain an internal weather station and the water flow changes based on recorded temperature and humidity. These guns can run off an iPhone – pretty impressive stuff!

Snow guns blaring on Whistler Blackcomb.

Snow guns blaring on Whistler Blackcomb.

In total, Whistler Blackcomb’s fleet of snow guns can convert 12,000,000 gallons of water into snow in a 24-hour period – presuming, of course, that they can pull the water from the on-mountain reservoirs. Combined, all three water reservoirs have a capacity of 53,000,000 gallons. And we can’t forget the massive electrical draw needed for the pumps, the air compressors, and the fan guns.

Without snowmaking, it’s hard to imagine how last year’s season would have panned out.

With the early season dry spell we experienced, we probably wouldn’t have had the chance to ski until well into the new year. Whistler Blackcomb’s snowmaking operations have made it clear that snowmaking is crucial to delivering a good product to winter sport enthusiasts.

Sun glistens through a spray of freshly made snow.

Sun glistens through a spray of freshly made snow.

What can we expect for the rest of this winter season?

We are currently in a weak El Nino cycle, which usually brings warmer temperatures and less precipitation. To further complicate the weather, we have had two successive super typhoons: Typhoon Vongfong and Typhoon Nuri. Typhoon Vongfong certainly delivered, with moisture and a higher than normal freezing level. Typhoon Nuri then provided a blessing: cold, dry air pushing into the area allowed Whistler Blackcomb’s snowmaking team to work their magic.

The crew has been hard at work since October 26, blanketing many runs with a solid coat of snow. During a recent cold spell, 140 snow guns were running on Whistler, while another 100 blew snow on Blackcomb. So far this season, more than 60,000,000 gallons of water have been converted into snow on the mountains – that works out to about 300 US football fields, each covered in a foot of snow.

The pattern is now changing: it looks like we will be moving towards a more typical westerly to southwesterly flow with seasonable temperatures early next week followed by some clear cold weather. Thanks to a hardworking team of 24 snowmaking staff members, combined with the efforts of millwrights, maintenance, and supervisory staff, Whistler Mountain has opeaned on November 22, nearly a week ahead of schedule.

Enjoy that snow – and don’t forget to think twice about where it came from.

View Wayne’s own blog – wayneflannavalancheblog.com

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