The disheartening rate of glacial retreat in the face of climate change isn’t a new concern for scientists and outdoor enthusiasts. But ski behemoth Whistler Blackcomb has a particularly vested interest.
As one of two North American resorts to offer summer skiing and snowboarding on a glacier, the revered ski area—specifically, Blackcomb Mountain’s Horstman Glacier—has become a summer training destination for ski and snowboard teams from around the globe.
The problem: A couple of sparse snowfall years combined with rising summer temperatures have caused the glacier’s mass balance to dwindle, which puts the resort’s summer season—and the revenue it generates—at risk. In fact, this summer’s skiing and riding will end earlier than usual on Horstman.
The proposed solution: snowmaking. The idea is to stabilize the glacier’s movement enough to support resort operations and, ideally, to reverse the recession—eventually. “In terms of the current state of the glacier and trends we’ve been measuring for decades, now is the time to implement snowmaking,” says Arthur De Jong, Whistler Blackcomb’s mountain planning and environmental resources manager. “It’s a physical reality. Right now, the glacier is in such a condition that it’ll be very difficult to operate in the summer.”
After the summer season ends in late July, the resort will begin installing the pilot project: five new snow guns at the top of the glacier—the only system in the resort’s extensive fleet that makes snow above 6,300 feet in elevation, and the only guns that will be stationary. Snow will start blowing in October and ramp up on either end of the season, as the higher elevations will sustain cold enough temperatures to keep making snow through late May. If the test phase is successful—each gun will need to produce around 17,000 cubic meters of snow annually to prove a full-scale system is viable—the resort will begin phase two next summer, which means installing 21 more guns on the glacier. De Jong hopes to add back about 12 acres of glacial surface to Horstman and expects to go through about 60 million gallons of water by the end of the second phase.
With three snowmaking reservoirs and a surplus of stored water between the resort’s mountains, he doesn’t worry about water use. The more pressing issue is energy. “We’re testing different low-energy guns on the project so we’ll learn more about them,” De Jong says. “We’re very mindful that we’re having these climate change issues because of our own choices with energy.” It’s an industry generalization, but he’s quick to point out Whistler Blackcomb’s impressive efforts en route to a net-zero carbon footprint. “The glacier [project] is an adaptive measure,” he says, “but it’s actually a very small piece of a much bigger strategy.”
Whether or not Horstman can be saved with snow guns remains to be seen. But the concept resonates with experts—to a point. “It does work because fresh snow is bright and white and insulating,” says Ted Scambos, lead scientist for the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado. “So it reflects the solar energy, keeps the surface cooler, insulates the surface below, helps hold the winter cold in, and would probably work to slow down glacier retreat. But only a few glaciers in the world would have enough intrinsic economic value to warrant that sort of effort to save them. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to work on any sort of large scale. “